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October 6, 2017

Review: David Kim Whittaker’s ‘The Flesh to the Frame’

By Spear's

The highly talented young British artist steals the show at Opera Gallery, with vivid illustrations of conflicting emotions which are both utopian and dystopian, writes Harry Dougall

David Kim Whittaker was little known until last year when he was included in a group show, BritARTnia, which featured works by YBAs Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn and Julian Opie. Given that he was not associated with the rumbustious YBA art scene of the 1990s he was a surprise choice for inclusion, but the general feeling was that he stole the show.

Things moved quickly in the art world, and now he is the subject of a major exhibition at the Mayfair gallery, Opera Gallery, which, such is their enthusiasm, will also be presenting his work at its Paris space later in the month.

So who is David Kim Whittaker? In 2011, he was the recipient of the prestigious Towry Award (First Prize) at the National Open Art Competition. He has since been described in The Independent as ‘a mash-up of John Constable and Francis Bacon’. Indeed, one of the most striking elements of Whittaker’s work is the combination of delicately painted detailed images often of people or landscapes, with the gestural and primal strokes subsequently applied, emphasising the conflicting emotions often present within the work.

His penchant for capturing emotional turbulence is evident in the London show. Entitled The Flesh to the Frame, the paintings in the exhibition reveal a powerful vortex of chaos and harmony based around an interpretation of the human head and its metaphysical core, present imposing and nuanced portraits that contain countless elements, waiting to be discovered and explored.

One of the featured works, an impressive triptych entitled The Lament (2016), is illustrative. In the central canvas, the viewer’s eye is drawn to two pastoral scenes inside painted oval, gold-rimmed frames. Closer inspection reveals these to be facsimiles of Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), reproduced at fractionally different moments in time, suggested by no more than a change in the wind. Instead of Constable’s legible landscapes, however, Whittaker then introduces the emotive and abstract brushwork that almost renders invisible the representational elements of the work.

The dual states present in the work evoke and reference the multiplicity of life, and are full of both calm and conflict, strength and fragility. As Whittaker comments ‘You only have to remove a few layers before you find the horrific smiling back at the beautiful.’ These portraits could be read as utopian or dystopian, but as in life they appear to present the viewer with both. These universal states of conflict jostling for supremacy are arguably reinforced by Whittaker’s gender dysphoria, a condition where one’s physical body does not match their deeper identity. The artist has learned to live with this personal struggle and ultimately embrace rather than suppress this conflict of identity, partly by expressing something bigger than oneself through creating art.

Artworks arguably have their own life when completed and Whittaker’s work is no acceptation, bursting with imagery that creates the feeling that each piece needs to be returned to again and again to unpack. Full of both historical and contemporary references, Whittaker manages to draw attention to current affairs, as well as engage with the universal questions of reality, mind, and embodiment.

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The Flesh to the Frame is on view at Opera Gallery London, 134 New Bond Street from 2nd October and at Opera Gallery Paris, Rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré from 26th October 2017.

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