SQUEEZING MR. WHIPPLE

25 years of Jeff Whipple's personal and pop culture puree.

Julian's at the HeritageJeff Whipple: A 25-Year Retrospective Sat.Julian'sGulf Coast Museum of Art

12211 Walsingham Road

Largo 727-518-6833

10 a.m-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

Noon-4 p.m. Sun.

Closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1

Sat.Julian's at the HeritageNude in the PostmodernSat.Julian'sBrad Cooper Gallery

1712 E. Seventh Ave.

Ybor City 813-248-6098

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Closed Dec. 25, 31 and Jan. 1Sat.

If ever I've felt the tug from the proverbial rock on one side and the hard place on the other, this is it.

First the rock.

After much anticipation and two trips to Largo, I've viewed Jeff Whipple: A 25-Year Retrospective at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art (GCMA), an energetic exhibition of 68 works from 1977 to the present.

Jeff Whipple is something of a Renaissance fellow. Gulf Coast Museum of Art Director Ken Rollins, whose museum is dedicated to post-1960 American fine art (and fine craft), writes, 'Jeff Whipple is one of the important talents working in America today."

A son of the Midwest, and a Sarasota resident for the last 12 years, the 45-year-old artist recently resettled in Tampa where he received his master's of fine arts from the University of South Florida in 1980. He's an accomplished and award-winning visual artist and playwright who has recently dabbled in filmmaking. His longtime interest in writing and film continues to influence nearly all of his visual work, which began with his all-boy worldview (monkeys and dinosaurs eating people, war imagery, etc.). During the last two decades, he's received numerous public art commissions, fellowships and solo exhibitions. His work is represented in numerous public and corporate collections.

Exhibition curator Mark Ormond, former Deputy Director and Curator of Contemporary Art at Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art, selected the work from Whipple's own collection, creating a chronological journey that only a retrospective can offer. It traces a 20-year-old Whipple's early skill with oils and drawing, and the visual residue of failed relationships. Many of his subjects are incapable of communicating with each other, or do so only through simulated violence. Two beautifully rendered miniature (4-inch-by-4-inch) watercolors of burning TV antennas portray aggressive themes, coupled with barbed social commentary.

For the most part, the retrospective, spread throughout three galleries, left me duly impressed with the breadth of the artist's oeuvre, especially his ability to switch gears. He slides easily from realism to abstract expressionism, from commentary to portraiture. There are also self-portraits integrated into complex scenarios. He charges his compelling narratives with psychologically challenging acts of aggression. Quirky, satirical moments are liberally sprinkled with the familiar Whipple-esque wry humor and more than a touch of dark humor.

One early drawing depicts the artist with a telephone cord wrapped around his neck. The huge show-stopping double portrait, 'Domestic Discussion" (2001), which could have been titled 'A War of Roses," depicts a married couple after they've inflicted bodily damage on each other — she with her circular saw, and he with his drill, all spun off from Whipple's off-beat humor. (FYI, Wayne Genther, the model for the husband and a friend of Whipple's, ran his dog against Katherine Harris in the Sarasota Congressional race).

Where are the roots of such emotional seesaws? The artist writes that when he was 16 his father died an alcoholic's death. Whipple calls it a suicide.

Continuing through the galleries, we see his expertise in depicting the figure — on paper, on canvas and in small beautiful sculptures, graceful like Degas, upside down like Baselitz. Throw in a grenade-carrying, booted damsel. His figures continually surprise us, whether an early painting of a Norman Rockwell-ish, middle-aged woman walking away from an end table, or, later, cryptically disconnected scenarios. Or a recent beautifully painted nude.

Models — actors or close friends — are isolated from each other in groups, made heroic, or weightless. Welcome to Whipple-world, populated by modernity's debris clashing with puzzling performers in Kafka-esque predicaments. How else could we describe free-falling figures bombarded by tornado-like swirls of coffee mugs, hot dogs, hamburgers or missile-like bombs? Sure they're formulaic when clustered here, but then artists often work in series, and Whipple is no exception. Of this genre, the recent painting 'Hot Dog Breeze" shines. A young woman is trapped by flying hot dogs. She struggles within skillfully layered dimensions that exist without a single horizon line.

We also see the artist's early allegiance to the figure as subject matter, despite abstract expressionism's lingering effects on a generation of influential art professors. Figuration didn't resurface significantly on the national stage until the 1980s, though independent-minded artists like Whipple rarely succumb to fashion.

In fact, the retrospective begins with an oil of a young female nude painted in 1977 when the artist was 20. The beautiful play of color and light creates an unusual warmth, matched by a comfort zone of patterned pillows.

By the mid-'80s, Whipple loaded his backgrounds with designs. In the fascinating painting 'Tanks," beautiful, interlocking shapes unite disconnected figures and subjects. Subtle color gradations and organic movement across the canvas bind imagery bursting with surrealist tendencies.

One of the exhibition's most dynamic works is 'What You Get" (1987), its flattened linear designs cascading across a maelstrom of oranges and yellows that flow into blue. Isolated images, each in separated bubble-like forms, again suggest a surrealist touch; the artist's hand appearing to paint an eyeball is only illusionary.

With my rousing introduction to the retrospective, you're probably wondering about the 'hard place" I mentioned?

I think Whipple occasionally sells himself short. Despite his ability to draw or paint people, animals, landscape, objects — really anything he puts his mind to — and aside from his keen sense of the theatrical moment, he also settles for the quick read, the visual 'soundbite." Ironically, these meticulously painted one-liners are endowed with all of his talent and skill. One viewing is enough, though. They remind me of conceptual artists with an uncanny way of making a real big deal out of a minor message.

My interest wanes pretty quickly in works like 'A Good Bite" (1990), which lacks the complexity that is Whipple's forte. A fisherman with his large fish at the left, in grisaille tones (shades of grays and white), and at the right, set into the artist's signature balloon forms, a hand grasps a beautifully executed cocker spaniel's mouth. Below it is a young woman on all fours. Once you've seen it, the light bulb goes off and you get the little word-to-image message. That's it, folks.

Another quick read is a decoratively shaped canvas in the Elizabeth Murray vein, with plastic toy soldiers at one side; contorted, struggling figures at the right.

By contrast, I found myself especially drawn to two strong paintings with far more than a fleeting message — one an early untitled work with three leaping dogs, and the other sporting a menacing clown. While the dogs leap, two hooded figures create a thoroughly engaging scenario within a nearly empty room. In the other oil, an inventive, off-center composition features a clown holding a pair of scissors; he turns away from a partially covered body, leaving us to mull over the slightly absurd but potentially tragic scene. Illusionary stripes accentuate our unease, but intelligently chosen colors keep us looking.

And that's what art is all about. The looking. The slow and deliberate peeling away of layers. Engagement.

Despite a few missteps, Jeff Whipple remains a vastly talented smart artist with a lot to say. His very enjoyable retrospective suggests more visual surprises in his future.

At Brad Cooper Gallery: Here's a show to complement Whipple's love affair with the figure. "Nude in the Postmodern" offers a glimpse into creative ways that traditional figuration rises again in the post-postmodern era. I liked several of the paintings but I was just amazed at the fine quality of photography. See for yourself.

Adrienne M. Golub can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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