Joanna Whittle describes there being a ‘seasickness’ to her work, that is, the feeling brought on by continual motion, and by a prolonged lack of solid ground. More than physiological motion sickness, it is also important that the sea is specified here, because there is something specific and precarious about floating atop an unknowable void, which isn’t necessarily present on a long bus journey. The particularity of this term is typical of the visual and written vocabulary used by Whittle, with materials, colours and textures that connote if not luxury, then at least gravity, and are deployed in conjunction with an almost playful melancholy. Whittle is primarily a painter, with a painterly approach to objects and a romantic approach to landscape, and in her most recent work we find echoes of earlier concerns that are here evoked through the illusion of depth in both space and time. A series of small, hand burnished, and seemingly hand moulded ceramic objects, titled ‘Relics of D0>, are displayed alongside wall mounted, altarpiece-like sculptural frames in the recent Heavy Water group exhibition at Site Gallery, creating what appear to be ‘real’ props and artefacts to accompany the fictional worlds alluded to in the paintings.
Crediting an interest in absence whilst writing her MA dissertation some years earlier, Whittle describes drawing inspiration from Heidegger’s thoughts on an alertness to destitution in destitute times. This presence of absence is important in understanding how and why the void always seems to hover, often concealed, at the centre of Whittle’s work. One of the ceramic pieces, produced using materials and techniques that the artist has recently mastered, is called ‘Mountain/Void Box’, and via its accompanying label bears the mythos that it has been designed to be worn. Consisting of a small ceramic box, seemingly coated in wax and ancient with its contents displayed, the ‘Mountain/Void Box’ holds a piece of what could be ceramic or bone, with a picture of a mountain drawn or painted on the front, and a hole punched out of the centre, representing ‘the void within the mountain’ that the wearer carries around with them. Each object in this mystifying collection bears a title and museological description that seems just about believable, ‘Solemn Rock’ and ‘Void Shell’ could easily be folkloric objects created to ward off local supernatural beings. However, Whittle isn’t aiming to create a historical hoax, and knowingly refers to the ‘Relics’ as having been both made and found, inviting us to consider how and why something becomes important, and whether provenance is worth the credit we give it.
There is both earnestness and an irreverence here, but neither overtakes the other and for the viewer there is also a thrill in being seduced by the aforementioned luxuriousness of the work, and then wrongfooted. As well as the dark, emptiness of the void lurking within, there is also an oft concealed luminosity which identifies a process of repetitive layering that is important in parsing Whittle’s work. In her paintings, the transient structures depicted frequently feature a light left on; perhaps a flickering bulb in a chain of outdoor fairy lights, or the inviting glow from a window leading to an obscured interior. This is variously referred to by the artist, and in descriptions of her work, as a sign of somebody having only just left the scene – a fading flush of life. The ‘Relics’ feature a technique whereby the surface is gilded and then covered with black wax, which can in turn be scraped away or left complete in the knowledge of what lies beneath. The surfaces of these objects are also burnished, and Whittle explains that any surface would do for the task, but that the use of stones and crystals adds to the sense of rituals that become real in the doing, and sacred objects that are discovered through the making of them.
Similarly, the roadside shrines from which the artist drew inspiration for the wood surroundings of her paintings in Heavy Water, are created through a process of repeated action in the landscape. A truncated version of this ritualistic practice of adding-to was recreated by the artist when installing these works, with fabric flowers fashioned from torn cloth and artificial silk petals that needed to be pinned on one by one, petal by petal. The shrine-frames are also illuminated from within in a gesture that is complementary to the golden under-layer of the ‘Relics’, and the radiant windows and bulbs in the paintings. By its nature a shrine refers to something outside of itself, whether a deity, a person or a happening, and Whittle’s paintings communicate the assumption of recent absence, whereas the ‘Relics’ hint at entire unknown histories, yet each of these facets seems to incorporate its own source of illumination or energy.
Words by Lauren Velvick
Lauren is a writer, curator and artist based in the North of England.
Header image: Sorrowing Purse, purse sealed with wax and knots (Gnarlements). Ceramic, sediment clay, wax and satin cord.
Image 1: Relics of D0>
Image 2: Forest Accretion, Joanna Whittle, Oil on copper, 21 x 15 cm (2021).
Image 3: Void shell, decorative clay stone shells, coated with sediment clay and decorated with silica glazes and gold.
About Platform 20:
Platform 20 took place in August 2021 and is part of the Platform artist development programme. The multi-site exhibition took place across Site Gallery Yorkshire Artspace and Bloc Projects, and featured new work from James Clarkson, Conor Rogers, Maud Haya-Baviera, Victoria Lucas and Joanna Whittle. Platform is an established artistic development programme at Site Gallery which allows artists to explore new ideas in a public space, testing new thinking and research with engaged audiences.
Platform is funded by The Freelands Foundation through the The Freelands Artists Programme. The Freelands Foundation was created to support artists and cultural institutions, to broaden audiences for the visual arts; and to enable all young people to engage actively with the creation and enjoyment of art.
Programme partners: Site Gallery, Bloc Projects, Museums Sheffield, S1 Artspace, and Yorkshire Artspace.