Art Review Archives:
Ben Whitehouse: Paintings and Drawings
Belloc Lowndes Gallery
Draw a line around an area until the line rejoins itself -- an 'outline.' At times, that bounded mass may be indistinct, fusing its area into the surrounding space, but, either way, it constitutes a contour. Contemporary Modernists have often exploited this traditional element for its own sake -- flaunting the established conventions of art in and of themselves... for the sake of raw effect. But subtle painters have wielded such knowledge to pursue and capture their personal, individual vision of the world.
Ben Whitehouse is subtle; and unites a realistic expression with a heightened, modernistic awareness for contours, colorfields and their configuration. The paintings currently on exhibit at Belloc Lowndes confirm the success of that vision. Viewers will have the opportunity to judge for themselves from October 15th through November 27th.
A major theme in the more than thirty Whitehouse oils on canvas currently displayed at Belloc Lowndes Gallery is quiet water: slow, reflective rivers and streams, reed-bound lakes, and barely rippled waterways, although the exhibition adds some fine seascapes. Noticeably, many canvases exploit the symmetries which arise inevitably in reflection from quiet waters: sky and water form symmetric contours balanced about an intervening shore.
The oil on canvas, Lochindorb, Nairn, Scotland (1999: 40"x57") is a fine example of Whitehouse's approach. Were it not for subtle variances of color and fine divergences at the shoreline, Lochindorb, Nairn, Scotland could be rotated half circle and retain its image identity. It is the shoreline, midway in the image, which splits what might otherwise be a unified colorfield, and yet even the most casual inspection confirms the tight realism of each inch of canvas. The composition of the scene, and the mirror symmetry of the sky and lake contours, but for the particulars of detail, easily evoke a colorfield painting of, say, a Barnett Newman or Jesus Rafael Soto. (Indeed, Soto did employ 'Op Art' grid superimpositions in his later paintings' fields.) There are many oils in this exhibition in which the symmetry of reflection in sky, water and land contours come to seem more important to the eye than the naturalistic particulars: this, even though the realistic image is rendered with virtuosity and a highly skilled sense of light. If Whitehouse achieves this not through a priori theorizing, but by artistic inclination and development, it may indicate the extent to which realism after the Modernists can never in actual fact return to any prior "Realism."
The artist's deliberative exploration of compositional power and luminous nuance most explicitly approaches the Nonobjectivists' experiments in his Lake Michigan, Sunrise, where a thin horizon line cuts the painting into an upper-half of delicately hued sky and a lower-half Lake Michigan that barely differs from it. It is nature that is abstract in Whitehouse's oils, but it is so only because of the artist's own insights.
Whitehouse's strong sensitivity to the effects of light and his often impressionistic skill at rendering terrain and foliage lead a viewer to surmise the exact time of day captured on canvas. In Lagoon, Autumn, 1999 (Oil on canvas: 52"x35"), the shoreline of inlets and small mounds seems to float in a single fluid. The pale saturation of the land within the soft blue creates a mid-afternoon with almost no indication of shadow. That the slip of land splits the blue fields exactly at canvas midway heightens the abstract quality of what is, in all fact, a realistic painting. Throughout the work on exhibition at Belloc Lowndes, Ben Whitehouse presents a highly sophisticated realism, even where some of the paintings harken to such quasi-impressionists as William Merritt Chase or the early Childe Hassam. There is much in Whitehouse's relatively tighter style that seems at once to recall both Impressionism and the sense of light of American Luminists such as Fitz Hugh Lane. Whitehouse's oils at times verge upon an almost oriental 'floating world.'
Unlike the American Luminists -- Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Head, and others -- Whitehouse is less involved with panoramic vistas and nature's moodiness, although his Scottish coastal scenes such as Carrick-A-Rede (Oil on canvas: 1998: 11"x24") are open and intense. Many of the Whitehouse oils at Belloc Lowndes portray waterways of a nature at ease, meditative, benevolent. Several images are subtle seasonal portraits -- identical locales, but for the floral successions with time: late summer rushes replacing earlier shrubs; or deep green leaves and fruit maturing from light spring hues and flower. At least three oils, and a pencil study, in the exhibit are titled Oxbow Lagoon, which makes viewing a pleasure, but discussion difficult. Paintings such as Oxbow Lagoon (Oil on canvas: 1998: 53"x35"), or Lagoon Twilight (Oil on canvas: 1998: 72"x96") convey a sense of close space and intimacy. In treating lagoons, slow streams, lakeside paths, the artist restricts the view to a small area and concentrates on the contours which define and frame water or small enclaves. In such works, Whitehouse is masterful in suggesting a nature which, if not domesticated by human use, at least has accommodated human presence.
A casual overview of the work at Belloc Lowndes Gallery might deceive a viewer with its unity of subject: the landscapes center on quiet waters, intimate wooded sites, and several isolated and more agitated coastal views. However, the canvases reveal an intriguing range of brushwork -- from tightly impressionistic to a freer, rougher but subdued expressionism. One also notices groupings of work that reveal series in which contour edges are softer. Other paintings are grouped in which a stricter geometry underlies the execution. Several, such as Valley Near Daless [Scotland] (Oil on canvas: 1998: 16"x27") and Moorland, Nairn, Scotland (Oil on canvas: 1998: 40"x54") veer toward the brushstrokes of an Albert Pinkham Ryder, albeit in a lighter palette: the rhythms show a sense of flow and a faster pace. In developing his image, Whitehouse displays a testing for particular expression.
The work on display at Belloc Lowndes Gallery also includes several studies rendered in pencil and at least two charcoal studies. Some later developed into oil paintings in this exhibition. The technique of the studies, skilled both in employing stroke and texture to convey the form as well as character of trees and terrane, and the artist's concern with light and shadow, constitute in themselves fine works of art. Furthermore, a number of Whitehouse's etchings are available at Belloc Lowndes Gallery. These are excellent pieces and should be viewed with close attention.
Several works by Ben Whitehouse are accessible to the public elsewhere in Chicago. Whitehouse, who has lived in Chicago since 1985, completed two major commissions this year. Hampstead Heath hangs in the new Wyndham Hotel in Chicago; and Lake Michigan from Wilmette is now installed in the lobby of the new Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This latter canvas is the artist's largest to date and measures twelve feet by eight feet.
Ben Whitehouse earned his MFA at the University of Chicago in 1991, and has lectured there and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His first residency was at Cawdor Castle, Nairn, Scotland and he also traveled to make studies of the coast at Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The recent paintings, studies and drawings of Ben Whitehouse will be on exhibit at Belloc Lowndes Gallery until November 21, 1999. They represent excellent work and are well worth a trip specifically to view them.
--G. Jurek Polanski