"The physical smallness of Joanna Whittle’s paintings – where-ever they arrive from and resonate with – make the viewer come physically close, leaving the safe space of the casual stroll past pictures glanced at. They make us really look. Only then, when near and attentive, do we see how intensely painterly they are, how much the effect and the affect arises from the sure confidence of the artist’s touch, the delight of the experienced brush that has animated a tiny inflection on a tree or placed two dots of paint upon each to create a single pink light piercing the damp gloom of the lonely night. Her work is, as the artist said to me a ‘celebration of painting’ in its technical mastery, its knowing relation to its peers and antecedents and ultimately its deeply affective and hence philosophical meditations on being in the world, when human relations to the environment are more acutely significant then ever. This evolution of a landscape painting practice so affectively attuned to the hurt of human alienation and to mourning strikes a deep chord in this moment."
Griselda Pollock, 2020
The work deploys material and illusory qualities of paint in an exploration of both real and imagined landscapes with subjects that represent a reenactment of the romantic ruin, with decaying structures and verdigrised surfaces slumping under glowering skies. The structures in the paintings, however, represent fragile and temporary structures constructed within these notions of the ruin and time passing. Canvas sits in water; ropes are pegged in to fluid land. Time sits still and moments brush against each other; canvas rots and weeds scramble over surfaces whilst, incongruously, some lights remain on or have just been lit. They hold their own histories, ideas of vanished events once frenetic now silenced and ominous in dusk or rain. Concealing their internal space whilst their exposed surfaces weather, they are hostile in their refusal to reveal their secrets. The still light ossifies both tents and trees, like a petrified forest, whilst liquid, motile elements pool around them making these worlds almost static, yet they seem be slowly moving towards an uncertain or foreboding conclusion.
The paintings are often constructed from several elements giving them a frozen static quality. The weather is oppressive, about to storm or kick up wind whilst red light reflects from clouds. The water or mud isolates structures and trees, making islands and increasing the sense of unease. Rather than the uncanny however, the paintings pursue those small moments of uncertainty, or hesitancy in our understanding or perception of reality and consequently realism. Elements give way to each other, grass becomes mud, becomes water which undermines the stillness, there is an undercurrent of flux or motility, of places emerging and submerging. The paintings are on a small or miniature scale making these worlds more focused and intense. They are not bodily landscapes but rather operate as small hallucinations or worlds running concurrently or beneath reality, formed by minute perceptions.
The 'Forest Shrine' paintings emerged during lockdown and depict makeshift constructions limping into view, emerging from walls of trees. Dark vertical pines dropping needles down onto these crouching structures, prickling like rain. These paintings explore themes of memorial, depicting sombre accretions, emerging from the forest floor. Pulling themselves up on their knees. They augment the rituals of mourning and their residue in the landscape, gradually growing disheveled monuments through accumulated actions. sites of time puddling where flowers and mementos fade and are replenished. They are postcard souvenirs of ritual or painted on to copper to allow the ground to glow through, illuminating darkened scenes, giving them the appearance of icons. Elsewhere other postcards become an archive of shrines, of looming wayside structures emerging from mist on imagined hillsides, swathed and adorned and watching metal wrought figures, swinging in still winds.
The ceramics emerge as artefacts from invented worlds and lost islands, taking the form of objects borne from rituals or ephemeral souvenir objects. They explore the creation of narratives both through the display and the information that we choose to share about them. The constructed narratives which sit around the ceramics question authenticity of the object and the rituals associated with them . The dark ware is weighty and rock-like, glazed with the archaic technique of terra sigillata where the clay itself is separated and burnished. These pieces are waxy and leathery, like molten rock. They are ceremonial pieces. They are often coated with beeswax or gold, giving them an alchemical gleam. Other pieces are fragile and delicate handheld objects associated with mourning rituals. These are often held together with knots, ‘sorrowing knots ‘or ‘gnarlements’ which speak of mnemonic rituals of remembering, holding and keeping.