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Ian Whitmore, Having His Cake & Eating It, Too

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page C01

Local painter Ian Whitmore must be awfully pleased. His current show at Fusebox sold out before it even hit the walls, a first for the gallery.

He might want to worry a bit, too.

Ian Whitmore's "Pox": The artist states quite openly that his work is questioning the idea of sincerity in art. (Fusebox)

If a painting is so patently attractive that a collector will buy it based on e-mailed images -- if a whole show will sell that way, to a whole slew of buyers who don't need time to mull it over in the flesh -- there's a chance that its appeal is mostly superficial.

There's no doubt that Whitmore's oil paintings are hugely attractive. He combines the decorative vim of French rococo art -- the frothy paint and sickly-sweet subjects of Jean-Honore Fragonard, for instance -- with the freewheeling energy of Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis, then throws in some of the cheeriness of Disney.

Fragments of all these sources peek through in most of the works. A painting called "Belletriste," done in the cheery blocks of color of an animation still, shows a Marie Antoinette aristocrat receiving a letter from her liveried footman, but the two are almost hidden behind a frantic mess of colorful expressionist gestures.

A diptych, inspired by an 18th-century print titled "La Comparaison," does the same trick with a naughty image of two French courtesans comparing their perfect breasts.

A canvas called "Pox," the most ambitious picture in the show, imitates the format of a grand ceiling decor from a rococo palace, full of the kinds of clouds and light and soaring space that earned Tiepolo his name. The image gives us a view up into an open sky of roiling pinks, with the crowds of figures gathered round its edges rendered steeply from below. There's a generic sense of ascension here -- or maybe the reference could be to a more apocalyptic subject like the fall of Lucifer from heaven -- but we can't be sure of details. That's because once again, Old Master clarity seems to have been crossed with the fancy mess of abstract expressionism. And then finished off with a few graffiti-style flourishes spray-painted over it in Disney pink and red.

Whitmore combines at least two different kinds of bravura in one body of work, and all that evident virtuosity must help make it sell. A buyer gets to have two different versions of traditional technique -- one ancient, the other modern -- pulled into a single picture that looks just strange enough to also count as contemporary art. In fact, it's exactly in tune with the gestalt of the contemporary painting on show in Chelsea for the last five years or so. It's got the allover patterning you see in works by Sue Williams, Julie Mehretu, Cecily Brown and many lesser lights. (Whitmore's even got some frenzied rabbits in his works, once a trademark of Brown's art; he tips his hat to abstract expressionism in much the way that she still does.)

Whitmore's just 25 years old, with only a bachelor's degree under his belt, so his impressive ventriloquism of the latest New York trends is nothing to laugh at. Most famous artists -- Rembrandt, Picasso, Cindy Sherman -- start out imitating the fashionable work that's all around them, and the quality of the impersonation is some sign of how far they may go.

In fact, in some ways Whitmore's work may be stronger than some of its good-looking Chelsea precedents, because at least it acknowledges just what it's up to.

Whitmore states quite openly that he's questioning the idea of sincerity in art. In an artist statement, he says that he's interested in how frothy and "effete" subject matter -- "fairy tale illustration, rococo decoration, Victoriana" -- might undermine the cliches of art as "emotional expression."

He may give a nod to traditional techniques and approaches, but his tongue is clearly in his cheek as he does so. His brushwork isn't really about bravura display, on the model of Rembrandt or Pollock, though I imagine that's how buyers may be reading it. It's a kind of painstaking simulation of virtuosity and artistic spontaneity. Even his splashes of "spray paint" are labored, hand-painted imitations of a graffiti artist's insouciance.

Whitmore must know his work is saccharine: A picture-book painting of a big-eyed horse, with a single horn tied to its head by pink ribbons, is just one end of a spectrum that also includes his homages to Tiepolo and Fragonard. The show seems to argue that there's at best a difference of degree between Hallmark sentiment and the emotional contrivances of officially great art.

Or it doesn't argue that position so much as revel in it.

One candy-colored painting appropriately shows a mess of old-fashioned penny candy; the pink dots splattered across its surface are either spots of sugar waiting to be licked off or the drippings from a Jackson Pollock brush. Titled "Baubles," the picture could be an emblem for the entire show.

Whitmore's art represents the decadent, rococo tail-end of postmodern self-consciousness and savvy. It doesn't really look back on older art to challenge its stale assumptions, as early postmodern art set out to do; it looks back because that's what counts as having fun in art right now.

With so much courtly dissolution on show in art these days, you have to wonder if a revolution isn't due. And if it comes, will Whitmore put his classy talents at the service of the rebels?

Ian Whitmore: Mirror Mirror is at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW, through Saturday. Call 202-299-9221 or visit www.fuseboxdc.com.

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