Modern + Contemporary Art
13 June 2018


born 1927

oil on canvas

100.0 x 120.0 cm

signed, dated and inscribed verso: Ken Whisson / Perugia / 7/5/90 / + 11/8/90 /

$28,000 – 36,000
Sold for $40,870 (inc. BP) in Auction 54 - 13 June 2018, Melbourne

Watters Gallery, Sydney (label attached verso)
Private collection, Sydney


Ken Whisson – Paintings, Watters Gallery, Sydney, 2 – 19 November 1991, cat. 10 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)

Catalogue text

Ken Whisson, an itinerant painter himself, takes his viewers on a journey through time and space, teetering through the fragmented and kaleidoscopic nature of his unique visual imagery. Bush Suburban, 1990, is a key example of Whisson’s haptic and intuitive translation of our interaction with the ’real world’ and of his philosophical musings on an individual’s role in modern society. Strewn across the picture plane, Whisson’s linear brushstrokes crystallise into a wide range of motifs from his personal lexicon: an assortment of quasi aerial views of architectural structures, stylised trees and cars and totemic figures reminiscent of Albert Tucker’s moralising caricatures of the 1940s.

Although the gestural quality of Whisson’s line and composition lead the viewer to believe that this painting was executed in an immediate and spontaneous manner – it is in fact a cumulative construction, the fruit of a long gestation. Painted over at least two distinct episodes in 1990 (faithfully documented, as is his convention, on the reverse of the canvas) Bush Suburban bears all the hallmarks of an Italian Whisson landscape painting. Painted on canvas, with a pure white ground, it is multiperspectival, with a high horizon line and features a reduction of form and shape in favour of colour and line.

Having moved away from the horror vacui of his early works, Whisson let his Perugian landscapes breathe by leaving visible areas of the white ground, generating in turn a strong sense of push-and-pull between the painting’s foreground and background. Bush Suburban juxtaposes irregular and gestural planes of colour representing distant memories of Australian eucalypts with thin angular lines tracing the edges of human figures and their man-made constructions. These elements symbolise our civilisation and successive attempts to tame the natural world. The resulting meandering view is one of poetic distortion, mimicking the splintered nature of the artist’s own visual recollection.

A student of Vassilieff and Nolan, Whisson paints his meditations on human civilisation in a faux-naif style, a contrived painterly construction concealing the artist’s conceptual and technical sophistication. In a 1994 lecture to art students Whisson explained this process, a means of liberating his creative impulse, as one of ‘eliminating all kinds of cleverness and skill’. 1 Remarkably committed to his enigmatic visual syntax, Whisson stayed true to this unique style without conceding to mass appeal, eventually reaching a cult-like status, a painter for collectors with refined palates. Bush Suburban is engrossing, with a commanding presence that will dictate a long period of visual interaction and appreciation.

Now in his ninth decade, Whisson has always been a true avant-garde painter – his works are idiosyncratic, his considered style distilled to its truest form over thirty years of sustained and dedicated artistic production, irrespective of its public reception. To quote the artist’s own understanding of the avant garde, Whisson’s art ‘resists and transforms the modern world, and its technologies and clichés’. 2

1. The artist, 1994, quoted in Ken Whisson Paintings 1947 – 1999, Niagara Publishing, Melbourne, 2001, p. 142
2. The artist, 1997, quoted ibid., p. 147