Solo Shows

Stephen Whisler: Smoke signals

Stephen Whisler, White Smoker, 1986, plaster, papier-mache, plastics and pigments, 100 x 30 x 36 inches

Contributed by Natasha Sweeten / In Stephen Whisler’s solo show “Past is Prologue” at 325 Project Space, I seem to have stumbled onto an archeologist’s record of discovery, showcasing a vanished world. Three large black-and-white charcoal drawings are straightforward portraits isolating simple, mysterious organic structures. The two cast-iron sculptures strike me as rendering long-lost implements whole again. This work is imbued with a somber sense often associated with scientific research. Yet lurking within is a playfulness, and a tender, vulnerable unraveling.

Stephen Whisler, The Gap, 1988, cast iron, 53 x 24 x 6 inches

The sculpture White Smoker stops me in my tracks. It is a combination so unexpected and strange that it demands steady contemplation. On the floor sits a softly rounded, weighty, white base resembling a bell or a buoy. Escaping from a small orifice near its crown is a simulated plume of shockingly thick, dark smoke. Although this notional plume wends its way through the atmosphere, proudly and stridently upward until hovering above all present human heads, its solidity fixes it in time. Outside, the cast-iron Split Void stoically takes its place at the center of the garden. A drawing in space, its two ovoid forms whisper to each other through a break in the membrane.

The ever-curious Whisler’s fascination with the impulses of nature and the peculiar existence civilization has wrought has led to rich and varied (“I never liked to repeat myself”) artistic contemplations over four decades. The show is curated by Charles Goldman in a space run by Jeff Feld, both artists themselves. While all works on view date from the 1980s, they radiate the graveness and novelty of the present day, from climate change to AI. And they hold together like a journal, sandwiching personal fate between what has been and the tomorrow we can barely anticipate.

Stephen Whisler, Study for Quadruped, 1986, charcoal on paper, 88 x 60 inches

The title is borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Antonio concludes that since the present is determined by all events that came before, he and Sebastian have an excuse for their actions, which happen to be murder. I also think of William Faulkner, whose canonical line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” inexorably entangles us with history. This is where the vulnerability lies: we exist at the whim of circumstance.

The show sprang from a charmed and improbable New York story. In 1986, a Long Island man who was not exactly an art collector purchased White Smoker. When this man passed away the sculpture was disassembled and its base served as a makeshift clothes hamper for his widow, with its plume reclining along her bedroom floor. Recently, the couple’s son inherited the piece and transported it to his home in Ridgewood where, after 30 years of existing separately, Feld reassembled the plaster, plastics, and papier-mâché parts and stood back to admire it. This was the first time he’d ever viewed the sculpture as the artist had intended, and once Goldman saw it he immediately suggested curating a show around it. After learning of Whisler’s other work from this period, he knew it would be a solo outing. As Goldman explains,

To me, the work fits in seamlessly with the psycho-surreal, abject work that was being done at the time – (Francesco) Clemente, (Susan) Rothenberg, (Jud) Fine, (Robert) Therrian. And I am aware of the current craze for rediscovering overlooked artists from that period. Thus my role as curator became only to say NO to anything that did not fit into this window of time, color, material and craft.

Stephen Whisler, Split Void, 1987, cast iron, 65 x 20 x 10 inches

The sparseness of the installation in a clean, well-lighted space encourages viewers’ awareness of their own bodies. All the pieces are at human scale (approximately five feet tall), and to view them is to consider one’s own verticality and heft. Seeing this work after such a long spell has inspired Whisler himself to revisit his older ideas. He confides, “I am working on Uvula Arch, an idea from the 1980s, and I am feeling it as strongly now as I did then, that this thing just has to be built, just has to exist in the world.”

325 Project Space: Stephen Whisler, Past is Prologue, 2023, Installation View

Stephen Whisler: Past Is Prologue,” curated by Charles Goldman, 325 Project Space, 325 St. Nicholas Avenue, Ridgewood, NY. Through November 12, 2023.

About the author: Originally from Kentucky, Natasha Sweeten is an artist living and working in Brooklyn and Germantown, NY. Her most recent solo show of paintings, “Let’s Get Lost,” was at BravinLee Programs in 2022 and currently she has works on paper at Art Sales & Research, Clinton Corners, NY. This is her first article for Two Coats of Paint.

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One Comment

  1. There is an interesting shift in some of the sculptures, where a line is broken and the balance seems to shift slightly. Interested to read more about this artist’s ideas.

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