Updated: Mar 14, 2022
There are seductive difficulties in the work of Joanna Whittle. Take, for example, Green (Dark Water) (2021), a canvas painted in oils and small enough to fit in my hand. But where would I take it? On its surface glows the image of a green tent sagging at its joints and betraying its internal armature of ropes and poles. This tent looks tired, but ambitious enough to signal signs of life through a luminous light beyond a veiled entrance. Unfortunately, there is no way to enter; the tent stands like an island surrounded by dark, possibly deep, waters. All is set in a crepuscular tenebrism of carefully placed dabs and strokes of paint visibly built up over time. (1) How long has this tent been here, how long has it been emitting a light from within? More difficulties emerge in the colours. This ‘green’ will not stay still: at first it is emerald, then a chlorophyllic hue, but then again, the lucky azure of shoals in warm waters. As different lights and lumens migrate across the surface, it blushes in greens. Green (Dark Water), like many of Whittle’s paintings, is difficult to photograph. Her paintings defy the abilities of camera lenses which end up confused between the rich darks and the vibrating lights and, in the end, misinterpret both. The same applies to her intimate paintings on copper where Whittle sometimes leaves fugitive traces of the metallic support on the surface of the finished work, bestowing it with a jewel-like quality. These too, depict tents, fragile awnings that conceal an interior life, abandoned gateways, portals and fairground structures precariously situated in murky grounds. In fact, such paintings are difficult to comprehend with merely ocular privileges; they must be experienced ‘in situ’, viscerally. Ideally, the beholder undertakes a pilgrimage; Whittle emphasises this condition by constructing shrine-like structures in which to embed her paintings. Green (Dark Water) rests at the centre of one of these structures, resembling the religious wayside shines that hang on trees or mounted on posts along country roads in Germany and eastern Europe. These sites of passing veneration hold still the traveller or the pilgrim for a moment, proposing a realignment of their beliefs.
Joanna Whittle makes objects of memory, both real and imagined. Her paintings intimate some hallowed experience and perhaps possess some apotropaic function – the ability to avert evil. This notion is further articulated in her practice of artefact-making, in the small ceramic pieces she creates recalling tokens, memorial stones and pilgrims’ badges. One of these, Void Shell (2021), takes the moulded form of a scallop shell, black but for a painted cartouche, or decorative scroll, depicting what appears to be a flag hovering over a fire. What could this enigmatic composition signify? Perhaps Void Shell memorialises a ritual, the experience of some venerated space, or, like the scallop shell badges of St James to which the piece alludes, commemorates a journey. St James’s shell – the badge worn by countless pilgrims on their route to the holy site of Santiago de Compostela, Spain – remains a persistent witness of the pilgrim’s experience. Pilgrimage and its objects are more haptic than ocular; more than what photographs of a place can offer in memoriam. The process Whittle undertakes in making these objects is long and, indeed, ritualistic: the distilling of the glazes, the firing of the ceramic, waxing, burnishing and further glazing with gold – each stage imbues this object with a further degree of reverence. The name of the piece suggests emptiness, but also a space for something to be kept, to be held, concealed.
Curiously, the tents also resemble shells. Tents and shells intimate temporary protection, a nomadic home which humans or animals establish presuming their inevitable abandonment. In Whittle’s paintings, the structures suggest a space once occupied by ceremony and festivity, spaces of emotive experience. Along with her paintings, her shrines and ceramic objects record, to borrow a term applied by philosopher Gaston Bachelard to shells, forests and houses, ‘topoographies of our intimate being’.(2)
Whittle’s recent group of paintings entitled Forest Shrines (2020–21), are a similar kind of keepsake, depicting dense arboreal constructions in sylvan clearings that let in very little light. They are suffused by an intimacy familiar from her other paintings, and follow the pictorial language of forensic attention to detail. Some are painted on postcards, adding another dimension to the sense of her paintings as mementos. The Forest Shrines are, to the art historian, reminiscent of the works of Albrecht Altdorfer, the early sixteenth-century German painter who, so it is argued, invented ‘independent landscape’, a landscape devoid of human activity, a landscape of nature on its own terms. Whittle heard stories about the Black Forest in south west Germany from her parents; it is a wilderness that has become part of her imagination, as it was for Altdorfer who journeyed into the Schwarzwald and learned from its unrelenting darkness a manner of painting trees in abstract, calligraphic strokes contrasted with slow mossy accretions of paint on tiny panels. The result is one that not merely depicts nature, but embosses it on the surface of the work. These were images that responded to the question of what images can do at a time when images, and their relationship to the spiritual, was heatedly contested.
What, then, do works such as Green (Dark Water), Void Shell or the Forest Shrines memorialise? Without ostensible deities and without saints, the forests and the shrines invite us to reimagine our relationship with the spiritual dimension of the natural world. Not just what we memorialise and commemorate, but how we do so. At their core, these are objects that propose we quite literally hold something dear, and that hiding and concealing are part of our nature.
Dr Albert Godetzky is an art historian and curator, he is Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld and Visiting Lecturer at the Victoria & Albert Museum,
1 Tenebrism refers to the separation of dark and light tones in painting, often associated with works by the artist Caravaggio (1571–1610).
2 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1957