The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

Shadows of Former Selves:
New works by Marsha Whiddon

BorderCrossings, Vol. 5 #1, December 1985.
[ 1,106 words ]

For all the talk over the past decade about the death of painting, painting is surprisingly well and flourishing. First, there was the gesture of painting in part as a rejection of image making and literal (or literary) significance; then, there was painting in minutely photographic detail of images with an almost anonymous, non-gestural application of paint. The painting of the 80s seems to have moved beyond these action / reaction modes.

Painters of whatever persuasion, however, have always known that the full art of painting is the gesture of image — making the physical shaping into personal significance of paint on the canvas surface. The painting is neither a representation or illusionary depiction of reality, nor a pure and minimal arrangement of colour and form. It is both; its vitality comes from the duality of the artistic act.

Marsha Whiddon's work comes out of this reassertion of painting naturally and directly with no apparent self-consciousness about the byways of art history. She paints powerful, personal images in full painterly fashion. Significance and brush stroke are one concern.

On the other hand, her work is very much about dualities, or, as she says, 'the twoness of everything.' Human / animal is the dominant duality and it appears in many of her paintings and drawings. In some, such as Issuant Scarlet (1984), animal and man struggle, pull away from each other even as they are embracing. In others, such as Yacht Club (1985), dog and woman dance together. In yet others, such as Expressman (1985), animal and man have become one creature, recalling the mythical depictions of man / animals, such as griffins, but also shamanistic shape-changing and the spiritual progenitors of the animal world. Each viewer can seek the significances, but the twoness of everything is carried into the painting gestures, the use of light and dark to isolate and accentuate, and the contrast of colour to establish the interpretation of central images.

Of special interest in Whiddon's recent paintings is the depiction of shadows. A shadow is, of course, simply the shape cast by a light partially blocked by an opaque object. As such it is an outline of the figure and can be directly related to the full-lit figure. The figure can even be identified by its shadow with a degree of accuracy dependent on the external form of the object. Shadows, however, have certain characteristics of their own which are not shared with the figure. For example, they 'bend' over objects they are cast onto. They elongate or shorten with the placement of the light. They are detailless except at the outer edge and therefore take on the detail of objects they are cast onto. They are distorted. Beyond their physical presence, shadows have a wide range of psychological significances, from the shadow figure of dreams to the use of shadow in fairy tales to assert actual existence (which parallels the mirror image test for vampires).

Marsha Whiddon uses shadows extensively not only for reasons of signification but also for formal consideration in the painting. Shadows in Whiddon's work often become an almost separate 'under painting', activated by and related to the 'top painting' or main image, but having a life of their own.

The independence of shadows in her work can be most obviously and most formally seen in the series of 'Issuant' drawings: Issuant Red (1984), Issuant Pink (1984), Issuant Green (1984), and Issuant Scarlet (1985). The colour in each case is the colour of the shadow, which is the only colour in the drawing. It divides and activates a shallow white area immediately behind the central images as if it were a shape on a white screen. In two drawings (Issuant Scarlet and Issuant Red) the shadows have no relationship to the images but suggest the human figure as it was before or will be afterwards.

A more complex use of shadow (if these two figures are not both shadows!) can be seen in My Funny Valentine (1985). Here the figure in front is black — that is, the figure that would cast a shadow seems to be the shadow. The background figure is red. Again, the red shadow figure seems to be in a different time, reclining in a relaxed state, apparently before or after the howling of the central image of the man / dog.

In Evening (1985), the shadow of the man seated to the right is of a dog. The dog figure itself, moreover, is in a black rectangle that merges with the darkness around the man (suggesting thereby that it is the man's shadow), but which functions almost as another painting, or a world outside of the lit room where the man sits.

The use of shadows is only one way in which Whiddon isolates her figures. Isolation of the figure is characteristic of her iconography, it gives the paintings their starkness and seeming simplicity. The illusion of depth is very shallow, almost oriental in its undifferentiated layering. Figures, as in Balancing (1985), are set in front of a shallow field which, in some paintings, such as Evening, is made even shallower by gestures of paint which cross from one space to the other and bring the entire painting to the surface of the canvas. Duality is, thereby, emphasized not only in the allusions but also in the formal handling of form and colour.

Whiddon's painting is as definite as her image-making. The intensity of the act of painting is evident over the entire surface of the canvas and every area demands to be looked at and thought about. Ultimately it is this intensity which makes Whiddon's work so rewarding. The painting Barkbarkbarkbark (1985), when looked at closely, is practically flying apart with the intensity of the paint application and emotion involved in the simple depiction of the dog barking. The image shatters into its brush strokes of colour. Barkbarkbarkbark is about painting as barking!

Painting for Whiddon is also about drawing. She is a masterful draughtsman and that drawing skill is not only evident in her depictions but is also evident in the painting itself. Every brush stroke is drawn on the surface. Colours vibrate and are active in themselves, but the drawing line has to have that peculiar life which distinguishes an ordinary line from a 'felt' line; it must exhibit the focus and energy of the artist throughout its length. It is the growing unity of image, painting and drawing that makes the recent works of Marsha Whiddon so promising and important.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 5 #1, December 1985.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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