The prolific Whiting Tennis is best known for his painting, but he has worked in music, sculpture, art and set-making during his career, now in its third decade. He is represented by two galleries, one on each coast. In Seattle his work can be seen at the Greg Kucera Gallery, in Pioneer Square, and he is often out making the rounds at openings and music events, always looking sharp in his Chuck Taylor’s with his six-foot-whatever grandeur.
Tennis’ sculpture work has become increasingly notable in recent years. The themes vary but always carry a distinct palette and structure. Wood grain is evident in nearly all of his pieces, sometimes through the use of actual wood as a building material or layer, at other times imprinted through blocking or painted on as visual texture. This, accompanied by his many collage paintings that have an almost patchwork quality, reveals a sort of meta-layering that made a lot of sense once I began talking with him.
Suffusing his thought and work are concepts of placement relative to one’s entirety. As a self-evident and self-referential example of these concepts, is a direct engagement with structure and its components. The collage paintings reference wood materials, the grain of which shows annual rings, the outward growth that marks its existence, all within the framework of one painting. This aspect, the structure—the interdependence within and independence of the structure—is what lends Tennis’ work an exceptionally powerful feel: always the undertone of self sufficiency, of stability amidst the elements.
Letting the line happen
Although always evolving, his process has been pared to what is proven to work best, a combination of drawing and more processed pieces that follow after that. He explains:
“It starts out of drawings. I draw on paper with crayon or pencil wherever I am at, and those drawings take me to the next painting, or sculpture, or a bigger drawing.”
“It’s simple, I draw, I try to be as automatic as possible, not to have an intention when I start putting the pencil down. I just start moving it. I am trying to do something different than last time and not just go on full auto-pilot, so there is an intention but it’s not locked in the front of my head. I try not to repeat myself; I let the line happen. Automatic drawing, like a Ouija board, you let your fingers push the pencil, and you watch it go, and that is the source.”
“From a hundred of those drawings I might get four or five that look like something and whether it’s purely abstract, or something that’s abstract but has something going on that I don’t understand, or if I see a face or a body part or an animal head, then that’s what I work with. Sometimes I religiously stick to the drawing; I actually grid it up, and sometimes I augment it, fatten it, make it taller. I can usually tell when I look at it if I will paint it. It depends. I make acrylic paintings, acrylic collage paintings. I make oil paintings. I make sculptures that are relief. I make sculptures that are all three-dimensional.”
“I’m a little bit anxious. I can feel when I’m on, when I’m tracking. And as soon as I feel like I’m starting to have an intention, like I see an eyelid or a nose or a finger, I don’t want the conscious to slip in and start representing things. It’s like golf. You have to be highly trained and then when you actually swing the driver you have to completely release and let all your muscles swing, using the rehearsals you’ve had. If your brain comes in in the middle of the swing, to do a correction, then you’ll screw it up. It’s game over. It’s all about making it happen, so it comes off in a jam. If I am trying to put two drawings together, and combine the elements, then you have to use your art school head, formal skills. And I have formal skills from school, basics, but I don’t rely on those as much.”
“I draw in the morning, at the coffee shop, and I take a figure life drawing class every other Monday night. Last time I went there was a male model, and I don’t respond as well to a male model. it’s an aesthetic thing, not a sexual thing. Angular, blocky. He was a specimen, totally gorgeous, perfect body, but I spent the whole time drawing in my sketchbook, and I got a good night out of it. I go because there are a lot of people drawing and a lot of momentum in the room. I will draw all the short poses in the beginning, but once they get into the longer poses, once the model is sitting down and gravity is not taking place, the structural element of two legs holding the figure up, then I am not interested anymore, so I do my own thing.”
Letting the shape emerge
This idea extends to his sculptures, many of which are reliefs. For those not clear on the distinction, relief sculpture is any sculpture that is wall mounted and has topography built into the surface of it. It adheres to a wall and is a couple inches thick, flat at the back with forms emerging at front. Tennis is also in the process of finishing a large piece of public art commissioned by Vulcan, which will be installed on Lake Union. The sculptures, very much like his paintings, are mainly made of wood and use a lot of layered patchwork style in their build. Saying I viewed them as architectural, he was quick to explain they are not created with that in mind, but something far more interesting:
“I see a shape but it’s not identified yet. It’s like a poem or a song or a metaphor where you launch into it and make it and it has the ingredients of what it is and you’re discovering it along the way, and you might never discover all that is in there.”
“I’m not intentionally referencing architecture. When you’re talking about building materials like wood and stone and concrete, that stuff—for the last fifteen years I’ve been making sculptures and paintings that look like they’re made out of building materials. It’s a really basic metaphor: You have the figure, as a body, or an animal as a body, which can be rendered by the same tools and materials you could build a shelter with. It’s not architecture; it’s much lower-brow building. It’s like you’re making the connection between a two-by-four and a bone. You have the body and the inside of the body, the bones and whatnot, and in a building you have two-by-fours and you cover them. The structural materials are an obvious connection; this is a house and shed and a figure at the same time. I don’t think of the philosophical angle of it, but all of my figures do. For some reason I am thinking in terms of wood.”
“When I see something that I really want to make, it’s a combination of questions, and I recognize something in it, and during the process—it could be a year later—I will see a tie-in to what I was going through, and it’s not a Freudian thing, but it’s a totem. It’s a thing that’s passed down, that’s been collected. We have a cultural accumulation of these symbols, and I like that word because they’re images that have ideas attached to them, that are cloaked in mystery. They have power, and they don’t always self-expose. They’re just in there. So you have a painting that has a power and you don’t recognize all that is in there; it slowly comes out. So with structural things, you are already in that world of mystery—ambiguous, what is it?—whereas if you do something really literal, then you have to really render the figure, and be able to compose a scene that has enough psychological content that it remains interesting besides the fact that it’s just beautiful.”
Letting the layers build
This accumulative approach, letting layers build, gaining shape with time, is present throughout all aspects of his work and thought. Collaged paintings are a notable portion of his work and an example of this. Whiting discussed with me the process of making these works:
“Sculptures, most of those took two or three weeks, maybe. I can almost count them all on one hand. There’s fewer than ten that are out there in the world: individual, anthropomorphic figure-size, around six-feet, independent, and they go outside. It’s been tough because I have discovered that when you put them outside they go very quickly south. It’s so moist here, the wood rots. It’s frustrating to watch how fast they go. I have a new respect for the elements, especially here, like water, which is the ultimate giver of birth and life. It’s the reason we are all here, with primordial soup, but it’s also the ultimate destroyer. It basically provides life and then ruins it. If I were to take some of these sculptures across the mountains, then it would last for twenty five years.”
“The sculptures are pretty linear. The paintings can be a bit of a stop and start. Sculptures have a physical momentum to them. Once I have the tools out and start making dust, generally I just go from the beginning to the end. Paintings, you can get halfway through and abort.”
“The last sculpture [commissioned by Vulcan] was almost a year [in the making]. It was a huge enterprise. It was such a long project that I kind of lost my place in my other art. I went a whole year and a half without showing with either of my two galleries. And with a gallery you have to keep your rhythm going, that’s the point. But I had to do a prototype, a rendering. I had to change the design, and go back to the drawing board, and then learn to work with the materials, so I took a basket weaving course from this woman in Mount Vernon, and learned some of the elemental modes of working with wicker, soaking it. This is the weave; this is the stitch you’re doing, and then I hired volunteers and it got underway, but it was this monumental task. I was grateful coming to work every day to do it. And then I had to make it so it all came together and would come apart, and then I took it in and they’re making it out of bronze, and I’m going to go down and decide on the color, the patina, and then they will finish it. It’s going in South Lake Union. It’s my maybe one and only public art.”
“The big sculptures, the most important thing is coming up with the idea. In my mind the bigger the painting—a large anything—the seed of it, the idea has to be worthy of something big, otherwise you’ll get in trouble. When you start to doubt yourself the only thing you have to fall back on is the idea. The idea must be worth it. Whatever connection it is that you have to your personal life, or whatever you think that actually means, if you don’t have that to back it up, all the work and all the doubt and all the weeks—then you’re going to be in trouble. Always for me there is a connection to something that is primordial and important and indisputable. I have to look and go, that’s worth six months. I get doubts and crises of confidence all the time, and there’s no one you can call. You can’t call your mom or your dealer. They just say, ‘you’ll be fine you always get through.’ So your only safety net is to look at the work or your drawing and go, ‘This makes sense.’”
Structure and culture
One aspect I find rather entrancing about Whiting’s approach is his undying love for the most classic display of art. He creates to add his voice to the collective mass of artists that have produced over time and will continue onward, his own piece fitting into the whole.
“I am putting my name in the journal. I embrace it. I am a fan, a viewer, a participant. As you get better as an artist you also get better as an art viewer.”
“I think of the room that I am going to be filling, and I think, this is the opportunity to have people off the street and friends and curators look with interest at what I’m doing. That to me is such a huge opportunity. It’s not really the sales, or the reviews; it’s mostly the room. I like a really well lit gallery or museum room, with an informed audience. It comes from everywhere. There’s the room, the opportunity to show, an art history, being part of the lineage of art makers in the western sense of it.”
“I like the formal presentation of galleries and museums. It cannot be improved upon. To be able to put something on the wall that’s a painting, that’s rectangular, whether it’s color or black and white or huge or tiny, that’s fair game, sort of the orthodox gallery viewing situation. Someone is going to come in and stand in the room, knowing this is an art experience, and they’re looking at it.”
“When I go into a museum or a gallery I feel I am more tuned to respond to what I like, and less fooled by bravado, or ego, or scale. If someone is trying to put one over on the public, I can sometimes suss that out from sheer experience. I am not saying they are not going to become successful commercially, but when I see just ego, or, a con, I kind of laugh and go ‘Good on you’ if that works—fine, I am not into it. I am looking for the person who is in there in a more realistic sense, making something really beautiful and weird and interesting, that is not so much a comment on the market. There are so many ways to take advantage of the progression of art as it goes forward. I have never been a serious critic. Anything that comes into the world of art making and art selling, I embrace it, it makes it all more interesting.”
“That is the first thing that art will resist. The first time you try to do one surgical maneuver on the art market or the art thinking, it’s going to kick back in your face. I defend the art market as it is. That’s what I love about art: It’s the wild west. You have gunslingers, you have ladies in distress, the whole world is represented. You have hucksters, you have Vincent Van Goghs and outsiders and insane people. Why would you want it any other way? That’s what makes it so complex. Some people put a socialist mandate on it, like art must be pure and be about emotion and cannot be about money. Go back in time and try to find where art was just that. We have the church. We don’t even know what cave paintings were about. Art is so impure. It is contaminated with the market and ego and all sorts of excellent things, but vulgar things as well. You can’t remove it. It’s like punk rock, it was inevitable, and then as soon as music gets disgusting enough again, you get another wave of punk rock. It’s built into the human response to commercialism. Of course it will affect some people and some will take advantage of it. The art world is big enough that the people who are disregarding all those stupid scams, they will become successful at some point. Maybe later, maybe early, maybe never, but every avenue is open, it seems. If you start out as an artist you should keep in mind that you may always be hand to mouth. When I am talking to potential artists, in art school, here I come in supposedly having some career, yet I am totally hand to mouth.”
Paths and play
Tennis circled around art before jumping into it and, like many artists, this non linear approach undoubtedly inspired a lot of his work and is built into it. The experiences that lend to the creative voice, and are a part of our history.
“When did I want to be an artist? I was a junior in college. Age forty-five I could support myself with art. And I’m still not there. I have money coming in but my revenue stream is pretty sketchy right now. There’s something to be said about having forty hours a week to dedicate to art. Your perspective is locked in. It’s your career. There are people waiting for this art; there’s already a price tag on it; you know how much you’ll make. It starts to invade your process a little bit. I only did two years of art school. I declared I wanted to be an artist as a junior and I transferred into University of Washington. I was a painting major, and had two years as a BFA, and that was it. I never went to grad school.”
“Afterwards, I went to Alaska. I was a choker dog at a logging camp. I was trying to do my Jack Kerouac years. I spent five years running around the world, hopped freights, went to Alaska, hitchhiked across the US, went to Europe and did the Eurail pass. I hitchhiked the Alcan highway, went to Hawaii and bought a surfboard. I did stuff that I needed to jet out there as a youth and get a bunch of experiences and stories. I had been reading Hemingway and Kerouac and to me it was like, ‘That’s what you do.’ I did so much in Alaska.”
“I ended up moving to New York and meeting artists and going to shows, and slowly broke into that scene. I moved back to Seattle and I still work in production. I still do jobs with friends of mine that do video. I like it because I’m getting paid a rate, and I am in a social environment working with really cool people, shooting videos and making art out of paper. It’s very lighthearted and fun. Art can be lonely and it can be frustrating, but since you have your autonomy it can be satisfying because you can do whatever you want, within limits. But how is that going to play?”
To see more of Whiting Tennis’s work please visit the site for Greg Kucera’s gallery, www.gregkucera.com