I first encountered several of Rebecca Whipple's astonishing "Language of War" watercolors during a group show at the San Francisco Art Institute last year. The images, which measure about 15x24" - roughly the size of a medieval folio edition of a hand-copied book - were presented in two-page diptychs, without much explanation, in SFAI's peaceful Diego Rivera Gallery, but I found their tenor to be almost uniquely relevant to their topic, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I am afraid to attempt to speak directly to the tone they strike because this is truly a case where images can open doors that words only close. Despite the artist's kind suggestion that she would like to hear what I think of her work ("I already know what I have to say about it," she wrote prior to our Gmail chat interview), for once I will keep my mouth shut and let the images - and our talk - speak for themselves. (Rebecca has graciously granted me permission to post images of her work throughout this post. You can click on any of them to see larger views.)
Whipple, born in Philadephia and now twenty-five years old, recently moved to Paris after earning an MFA from the Art Institute in 2006. She anticipates that "The Language of War" will take another two years to finish; she completes a new piece for the series every one to two months, and hopes to have twenty in the final set. She does not intend to bind the final version, but will seek to publish a reproduction edition (at the original size) bound in book format.
TiP: Tell me about your process in creating these images.
Whipple: With each piece I have some original idea, and work as intuitively as possible. That idea is like a little seed in my head and it usually takes a few weeks for it to develop more, at which point I do some sketches. Often when people see my work they respond to it, because of the detail and precision, as if they are very planned and thought-out pieces. Although each one is thought and rethought, I actually only make very rough sketches to figure out basic compositional elements before moving directly to the piece. Because each piece takes a month to two months to finish my thoughts and ideas change throughout the work, and although I often start from some basic response to a political event, the works accumulate their own meaning. I think that this is an important point because they really become the antithesis of a sound bite - what we are used to as a visual address of these issues.
"Gladiolus," for example, really took on a life of its own. All of my titles reference flowers, and their "meanings," which I've found in online lists of flower meanings. I take a flower whose meaning attracts me and use it in the piece with which I think it functions. In this case I began with the flower Gladiolus, the meaning being "Give Me a Break, I'm Really Sincere" - this is really composed of two separate meanings but using them as if they were connected added a very interesting intonation to me. When I began the piece it was to be of a "red" and "green" zone. From the green zone a media circus would be looking across onto a scene with a suicide bomber. The "green" zone was going to be done in a more western illuminated manuscript style and the "red" zone in a more eastern manner, but the two would intermix. In the end the media circus became a self-portrait, and the suicide bomber never appeared but the title seemed to take on even more significance.
TiP: The intuitive nature comes through, which is one of the things I like so much about your work. It feels almost dreamlike, very open to mystery, while still being very formally structured and also very pointed, as dreams can be. I think this can open a viewer up to your perspective.
Whipple: It is interesting that you say dreamlike. This is critical to me. The work I was doing before this was in response to dreams.
TiP: And the way you reference works on paper - medieval illumination, Japanese prints - feels very textual, which by its nature is a critique of doublespeak. It posits a record of events that has been set down, a world memory, that politicians often disregard by their actions. I am picturing you now with a thick packet of news photos for reference - all of these likenesses. Is the "Delphinium" piece a composition related to a news photo?
Whipple: Yes, almost every piece uses news photos or just photos found on the Internet. The drawing of the museum came from a picture of the museum with a tank beside it, after the looting. The pieces are really collages. I don't usually think of them as relating too directly to one image.
TiP: Is there anyone whose work helped you better understand how politics could be a part of good art and not just propaganda? I ask because the tension between art and political messages seems so delicate.
Whipple: Yes, indeed.
TiP: I'm trying to understand what makes some politically-charged art so wonderful and why some other stuff will just look like propaganda in ten years. I have some ideas but wonder what you think.
Whipple: Well, to begin with the most obvious, illuminated manuscripts and Indian and Persian miniatures were a huge influence.
TiP: When you look at these influences do you see them as political artifacts?
Whipple: What I love about art and history and art history is being able to explore an old piece and discover how it relates to that time, to what people were thinking about and to the very real and sometimes ugly propaganda that goes on in all times. In other words, yes, sure, why not.
Also, Shakespeare is an influence. I know he's not a visual artist, but I've been very inspired by how he weaves ideas and theories and politics into beautiful and even seemingly fanciful work. These ideas are able to withstand time because they are sewn into the work with great dedication and eloquence even if they are somewhat hidden at times.
TiP: I wonder if the indirectness of some of them is more inviting to the viewer to contemplate - that this helps differentiate it from propaganda.
Whipple: Not necessarily indirectness, as much as not being closed, I think.
TiP: How do you mean?
Whipple: That certain works are more open to the intermixing of concerns. It is not just politics, it is life, it is flowers, it is animals, it is buildings, and they work together somehow and coexist, and dreams, too.
TiP: One piece that I had difficulty engaging with was "Begonia" - the reference to the children's book session was so prominent in Fahrenheit 9/11 that it kind of played itself out for me. This even though it is such a powerful and significant bit of historical information - even though it is so telling - you are somewhat at the mercy of the "rest" of the media in how effective these iconic images can be in your work. Of course, you make them your own as well - Bush's blank expression and profound (Christian-mystical) hand gesture are a briliant combination with his advisor at his ear... Okay, I take it back, I like that one too. Any thoughts, though, about what viewers will bring to your work, and how your interpretation can benefit or be harmed by how fully the images were explored or "used up" before you worked with them?
Whipple: Yes, images are certainly used up sometimes. That piece was one of the earliest and I think it may be a little more naive. However, part of this project is to look at different types of events, used up ones and unused, and to see how they hold weight in our minds and bodies in different ways. What has been exciting to me is how people always respond more harshly to the paintings that have the faces of political figures in them. To me it is a necessity to have them, and I deal with them with great care and concern because I think the specificity is so important. However, people almost always seem to think that the paintings with politicians are more didactic and simple then those without. I tend to disagree, but I think it shows the weight that those images carry.
TiP: You described your process a bit ago. What point are you at now in the one- to two-month cycle of an image? I know you just moved, but I guess I'm asking, are you in the middle of a piece now, or have a "seed"? Can you tell me what it is, what you're thinking about?
Whipple: Well, the move has certainly disrupted my flow. I have a few pieces that I'm thinking about and one that I have almost finished. These pieces are a bit more simple in some attributes, in that I'm working more directly on portraits. The portrait I almost finished is of Donald Rumsfeld. However, I am also in the midst of starting some animation work. It is a different project about which I'm excited and which I plan to work on at the same time as the book.
TiP: Animation! In what format? How produced?
Whipple: Well, I can't give away all my secrets yet.
TiP: Well... hand-drawn and filmed, or Flash, or what? You have to give me something.
Whipple: Okay, hand-drawn. No Flash. When they are further along I can tell you a lot more.
All images in the above post are reproduced with the express permission of the artist and may not be reproduced in any format without her permission. Click here to visit Rebecca Whipple's website, where you can see three wonderful "Languages of War" pieces not shown here as well as her other drawing and painting series.