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“Ian Whitmore: Mirror Mirror”

At this late date, you might think that the whole discussion of the death of painting has itself become a bit of a dead horse. Maybe you think people should all just drop their assorted sticks and cease with the flogging, already. But don’t tell that to Ian Whitmore: With the 14 works in his current show at Fusebox, he’s reached into this discussion’s cold corpse and strewn its guts all over the gallery.

Take, for example, Woodsy (2004): The piece looks like a representation of the moment just after an a little girl’s closet has exploded, leaving a mix of smoke and pink detritus hanging in the air. Against a backdrop of mostly bare tan canvas, there’s a storm of brush strokes—urgent, stabbing expressionist marks in dirty gray-blues and reds. Amid these marks are illusionistic renderings of bits of ribbon, swatches of lace, and two shoes. Also visible are a number of toadstools, a snail, and a rabbit.

It’s a collision of painterly impulses, from a few flat areas of stained color in the background, to the facile verisimilitude of the ribbons and rabbit, to the thick abstract passages that seem to swirl around these isolated feminine objects. By loading all of this onto the same canvas, Whitmore seems to declare his affection for every bit of the physical stuff of painting, and for every way to have pushed, pulled, or splattered in the past.

But what registers most in Whitmore’s work is not mastery or his versatility with the brush. Rather, it’s his love of goofy, self-deprecating pastiche. Through his subject matter and the palette he uses to render it, Whitmore defuses the traditionally ennobling enterprise of painting itself. His falling, floating playthings suggest the awkwardness and powerlessness that come with early adolescence and the first stirrings of sexuality. To paint is apparently to be an innocent, and the scales are falling from Whitmore’s eyes.

Right now, though, Whitmore should be feeling plenty powerful, and certainly nobody’s innocent dupe: He’s a very young artist who happens to be doing quite well for himself. Whitmore, who is in his mid-20s, received a B.A.—and only a B.A.—from George Washington University four years ago. But this is already his second show at Fusebox in two years, and it’s completely sold out.

Titled “Mirror Mirror,” the exhibition has a clever conceit at its heart, even if it isn’t always apparent: These paintings exist in oppositional pairs. In Comparaison (After Janinet After Lavreince) (2004), Whitmore offers a physical parallel to the way influence—or, in this case, a naughty French print—is received and processed from one painter to the next by making a monoprint, then showing both the template and the printed result as separate works. The finished images—the first a painting of a brothel made after Le Comparaison, an 18th-century print by Jean-François Janinet, the second a reversed impression—have been further differentiated with contrasting palettes. One is rendered in a cool range of blues and chalky whites, the other in an array of yellows and hot pinks.

Given how steeped Whitmore appears to be in technique, history, and metaphor, you might think that he would be supremely confident in himself and his medium. But much of this work ironically seems bent on spectacular, deliberate failure. Pox (2004) wields a faux-Rococo sensibility like a cudgel. In this ovoid, four-panel altarpiece, 84 inches in diameter, the Greek gods romp with rearing horses and 18th-century scullery maids against a ridiculous fiery-pink sunset. The figures and sky are all loosely, perfunctorily realized, teetering more toward laziness than assuredness.

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Whitmore’s obviously not doting on these forms; he’s sending them up. His colors are a disco-era fashion show of powder blues and sickening pinks and mauves. The flesh in his painting is all murky, putty-colored mush. Whitmore either doesn’t understand how to mix color, or—much more likely—he deliberately denies that knowledge when painting. And hovering right in the middle of this overheated, underdeveloped atrocity is a cluster of blaze-orange spots, unceremoniously spray-painted in.

And that’s not all that floats in Whitmore’s skies. Elsewhere, there’s leaden, parodic otherworldly light: In Look of Love (2004), a cherubic-looking young man sprouts a pair of deer antlers as a woman in pink and purple shields her eyes and body from him. Both figures are bathed in supernatural light, indicated by a number of broad pinkish strokes all emanating from the top center of the canvas as if an elementary-school student were attempting to show the action of the sun with poster paints. The story being alluded to is that of Diana and Actaeon, a popular subject for academic painting for about as long as the genre has existed. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Actaeon is hunting in the forest when he stumbles upon his patron goddess, who happens to be nude. He’s summarily cursed for this accidental ogling by a quick transformation into a stag, after which his faithful hunting dogs decide to rip him to bloody tatters.

In the Whitmore version, however, the dogs appear to have wandered in from a ’50s children’s book. They look more playful than bloodthirsty, regardless of the impatient energy brought to their unfinished outlines. The boy himself looks mentally absent. And his soft face and long eyelashes make him seem too much the kewpie doll to feel sexual stirrings at the sight of a naked woman. Even taking Ovid as Look of Love’s dark subtext—its implication being, of course, that appearances can be deceiving—doesn’t lend much resonance. Menace simply seems impossible in Whitmore’s world. His pictures set themselves apart from life as it is lived through their messy, unflaggingly saccharine irrelevance.

Yes, much of this awfulness is intentional. The title of Belletriste (2004) alone is a clue to what’s on Whitmore’s mind: work that’s more about style and artificiality than substance or authenticity—qualities which, if not simply elusive, might have been illusory constructs of connoisseurship and tradition anyway. In this painting, two clumsily rendered figures, male and female aristocrats, seem to be struggling over a letter; the much taller female figure holds the note just out of reach of the considerably smaller gentleman. The same palette of turquoise, pink, and putty is in play, and the momentum of these figures has upset a tea table and a deck of cards, and thrown a number of small lettered circles into the air. Whitmore’s trademark swarming abstract marks thread their way around and between the two figures, here and there looking a bit like glistening internal organs—or like a cartoon rendering of a dog and cat fighting furiously, all motion lines, dust clouds, and lightning bolts.

In addition to the 18th-century trappings and Looney Tunes– style energy, another reference is being made here, consciously or not: to Marcel Duchamp’s King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes. That 1913 Armory Show–exhibited painting showed two tall, abstract figures—faceted sculptural volumes that resembled chess pieces—surrounded by flurries of futurist mark-making that embodied movement. This parallel is telling. Duchamp, after all, came to regard painting as a parlor trick, no longer worthy of his time. But unlike Duchamp, who dropped the brush when he realized paint couldn’t serve his intellectual needs, Whitmore has decided to hang on tight—even if it’s just to tell us that he really knows better.

If painting is indeed just an act of pointlessly clinging to innocence, or a farcical search for unattainable expressive power—only an occasion for self-parody, really—Whitmore needs to ask himself why he bothers to continue with it. After all, there’s only so much winking and mugging an artist can do before the need to actually say something becomes acute. And it’s only the very rarest of artists who can revivify a style by mercilessly making fun of it.

Only once in “Mirror Mirror” does Whitmore seem as if he might be that artist. In composition and costume, Bridge (2004) recalls Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady, a tiny but exquisite panel painting from the 15th century in the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection. Unlike Whitmore’s other pieces, this one eschews lavish, roiling explosions of paint. In fact, with its murky chocolate-brown background, it’s positively sedate. Whitmore doesn’t even bother to try to match the luminous beauty of Rogier’s lady: His freckle-faced model squints a bit, wearing an expression as if she’s just smelled something rotten.

Another major difference is the decorative border running along the bottom hem of the model’s blouse: orange horses, each in midstride, laid out like sequential still photographs of the act of running. Bridge, it becomes clear, is a reference to Eadweard Muybridge, the early-20th-century photographer who captured the attitudes of horses and humans in motion, causing a whole generation of painters—Duchamp included—to rethink how perception of a moving subject could be represented in a static medium. This lone piece, then, becomes a keystone for the entire show: It’s a quiet memorial to a long-gone revolution, a coded message about everything Whitmore’s medium can’t hope to accomplish anymore. Perhaps we didn’t need yet another painting about the death of painting. But this one at least makes us feel the loss. CP