Thursday, July 5, 2012

Brett Whiteley's autopsy


Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's autopsy, charcoal & acrylic on paper, 59x42cm

“A large incision was made and the scalp peeled back to reveal the top of the skull, which was then opened up with a saw, disclosing the brain ... the brain was taken and placed in  formalin so that, after a period of time during which the tissues solidified, it could be sectioned and examined. There were no scalp, skull or brain injuries or diseases”.  Hilton, M & Blundell, G, 1996, Whiteley: an unauthorised life, Macmillan pp. 238-9.

As you know, I had made Brett's hair a motif in many of the drawings and paintings in this Whiteley series.

I had gotten to know the angle of his nose, its bridge and bulbous end, his straight mouth and cleft chin. My acquaintance had become somehow intimate and personal.
Then i read that they desecrated his corpse, that they peeled back his scalp, that they sundered the curly hair he was so proud of. That they pickled his brain.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's autopsy, acrylic on paper, 170x156cm

My intial shocked response drew a few quick charcoal/acrylic drawings.

Then i set to work with a floor mop to paint a large image (above).

I wanted to bash and splash.

I combed - literally, with a wide tooth comb - through his brain where his hair should been.

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's autopsy (detail)

The work that followed (below) turned out as a rather adolescent piece of kitsch. But it started out as an experiment in process. I was searching for some way to conveying the sense of perpetrated violence. 

So  I took the piece round to a friend who owns a farming property and used the opportunity to 'paint' with a shotgun. I thought that by painting an image onto board and then blasting it from behind with a shotgun i might achieve an outplosion of splinters and shards.  These could then be fix into place on the scene with polymer gloss and, all going well, a dynamic piece taken home. 

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley's brain, mixed media on board, 46x66x24cm

I had embedded red and blue party balloons, each containing small quantities of red paint, into a mix of plaster, PVA glue, and cotton threads ... hoping that shards of plaster and shreds of balloon would end up dangling from the gun wound. I also hoped that the outward explosion of paint would register and be read by the viewer for the violent painting event that gave it life.

However, all didn't go well. The agency of media asserted itself, this time against my intentions. The board did not consist of splintery timber but was a 20mm thick piece of flooring particle board i had happened to have at hand. The result was that three shots from a 20 gauge firing 6 shot at 25 meters simply blew a hole through it. It punctured balloons but not explosively. The plaster was too brittle and simply blew away. I returned home with a failed experiment.

But i wanted to keep learning from what i had at hand and so i filled the blast hole with red and purple waterbomb balloons, allowing them to protrude as a cluster of organic lobes. I contrasted the tenderness and fragility of balloons with sharp-edged steel medical instruments.  I framed the piece in polished 0.8mm aluminium sheet, searching for a contrast between the 'organic' and the metallic, between the 'human' and 'medical'. But I lacked the tools and technique for cleanly cutting out a rectangle in sheet metal without distortion.

This small work was meant to be a pilot for a larger work of 90x120 cm. But i became too dispirited to continue and all my painting simply ground to a halt. My blogging lapsed into muteness. For many weeks now.

During which time i have survived a car collision in tact (a young man drove through a red light at speed, flashed across the front of me, i hit the anchors but still nudged him and spun him round while he ripped off my front fender).

To top it off this blog was declared public enemy number one by Google. Since end of June web searches that turned up were told by Google that "This site may harm your computer or damage your mind" or some such. Seems their crawler didn't like a linked image of Bob Dylan, now removed. Western civilisation is once again safe.

So what next? I don't know. I have images in my head but can't face my studio. I think i'm just wearied by the whole academic process of painting for assessment. I have come to believe that painting belongs in art schools, not universities. Painting belongs to practitioners, not academics. Let universities research and teach art history, art theory and art criticism, but let art schools and artist communities teach the praxis.

I enjoyed the first couple of years of my Masters course when i was energised by the whole adventure of painting and free to explore the world of portraiture. But now i face my final semester. There are papers to be written, formal critiques to be presented. The adventure and lightness is gone, replaced by the grimness of assessment.

I am sick of being judged. 


  1. Well now, a bleak outlook for sure. I have them myself most days it seems. I don’t pay much attention to them which means I don’t pay much attention to the sunshine thoughts when they pass by either. However I really like the art when you have time to post or feel like posting and I always enjoy your commentary Harry.

    1. Sorry, John - didn't mean to sound so down and irritated. Guess i'm just feeling a bit institutionalized and indulging an adolescent rebellious moment. Or maybe i'm just looking for someone to blame for my own lack of ambition.

      Whatever, i very much appreciate your comment and your encouragement. Warm regards.

  2. Hello Stranger,
    I was one of those affected by the Google curse upon your blog, Harry. People then wrote me emails telling me what I already knew and my blog became a pariah.
    My wife came up with the idea of deleting your two blogs from my list. I did it, but have no idea if it had any effect. Anyway a day or so ago, my blog was back to normal, perhaps because of your actions.
    Bottom's great to have you back! Everyone was beginning to wonder if you were okay. It's good to know that, save for a bit of depression, you're ba-a-c-k!
    The school thing was an interesting read. I would have never suspected such feelings from you. I thought you were in your glory in this program. Who'da thunk?
    It'll all be behind you soon enough and you'll have another sheepskin to hang on your wall.
    Then, it'll be time to REALLY paint! I know I speak for all your followers and fans when I tell you we're all looking forward to that time.
    So, I know you'll muster-up the strength to make it to the finish line and we'll all be waiting to hear the good news.
    And finally...nice shooting!
    Have a great day, Harry!

    1. So sorry, Gary. Brian wrote to me some time back that there were issues with my blog and thought i had fixed them. But seems i hadn't and it was only now with the Google toolbox that i managed to identify the offending image.

      And i still don't believe that it was a problem either. It simply directed people back to the website on which it was housed. However, that site may have linked to some no-so-friendly sites and Google simply followed the trail, as it did in your case.

      Thanks for the welcome back. I have ideas for two large works but they will take a while to produce and a lot of my time will soaked up Powerpoint presentations, contextual papers and project reviews. And there will be a final exhibition i'll have to put together.

      Haha, hardly in my glory. I enjoy swaning around campus (the student life is such a priviledged existance) and savour the stimulation of fellow students. But jumping through hoops to satisfy course requirements has always chaffed. Spent most of my student life fulminating and goofing off, lolz.

      And i guess the vertigo has had me in its grip and left me despondemtly sitting about, unable to work.

      Yes, i'll finish OK and don't expect any difficulty in being awarded my gong. But i never started the course for another qualification. I just wanted paint. And learn. And meet interesting people.

      And i sure am itching to do some landscape painting once i'm free!

      Thanks so much for your warmth, interest and encouragement Gary.

  3. Greetings Harry! I am so glad to see you are back even though this is a bit of a bleak post. I'm not surprised that your latest creation in the BW series had you literally blowing your subject apart - it really was all that remained after such an exhaustive study, and it does seem to parallel a kind of flash point in your artistic life as you near the end of your academic experience. Perhaps your final presentation should not be a tidy and proper Powerpoint exercise but an invitation to your assessors to join you at your friend's farm where you can shoot every one of the paintings done for your classes and thus express your true feelings regarding university's role in the teaching of art?

    Kidding. Kinda.

    Wishing you all the best, my friend. Looking forward to your new landscapes - literal and metaphorical!

    1. Haha, love the scene of devastation you conjure, Gabriella. Though actually, the staff are lovely people and i enjoy working with them. They certainly are not the problem.

      I guess what i'm driving at is the whole business of analysing one's work even as one is working on it. It works for some artists i guess. Maybe it works well for conceptual artists. But i believe it's anathema to expressive art or any art practice that draws heavily on either emotional or intuitive processes.

      Somehow engaging in metacommentary kills the moment. One can't be in the pool swimming for dear life and outside the pool making cool observations at the same time. It creates hiatus. Interrupts fluxus. The millipede that thinks about walking, trips.

      Yet verbally articulating the fruits of analysis is exactly what universities want from art students. They are not satisfied with the artwork itself. The works aren't a sufficient communication in themselves. They want us to talk and write about what and why we paint. They want us to be conscious of and verbally articulate about inchoate creative processes predicated on visual imaging.

      And they want all that couched in some 'research' paradigm because research is largely where university kudos and funding comes from. But research may not the first descriptor that comes to mind when an artist reflects upon his or her exploratory creative processes.

      The problem is inherent in notions of 'research' deriving from empirical sciences whereas painting is an art-form and is therefore intrinsically rooted in spiritual and deeply personal elements of human experience.

      ‘Research’ is a procrustean bed in which i rest uncomfortably not because i don't understand empirical research (my research PhD was completed in the Science and Maths Centre of Curtin University) but precisely because i was looking for a way of being and working that drew on the other hemisphere of the brain.

      I'm not the first to say these sorts of things, and indeed there are art theorists wrestling with 'research' models in art that are more phenomenologically and existentially based. But the further they move in that direction the greater will be the case, i posit, of separating from institutions predicated on various forms of empiricism, pragmatism and functionalism.

      Phew, you sure got me started me there!

      Thanks for being in my corner and rooting for me. Hugs.

  4. Hi Harry. I haven't had a problem getting to your blog--maybe because I never upgrade to anything.

    I saw this image and blurb on my dashboard and wasn't sure I was up to an autopsy. I'm glad I visited; your disgust with what happened can really be felt in these works. Your "adolescent piece of kitsch" must have been great for the soul (and I love the excitement of it).

    Now I'm tempted to go shooting--I'm a damned good shot but I'm not sure my right shoulder can take skeet shooting anymore.

    Your never being satisfied is what makes you a great artist.

    1. Yes, autopsy is rather a grim turn-off, Hallie. But when i read that description (and i gave an abridged version) i was so shocked and mad that i thought the artist in me should quarry that strong emotional reaction for expressive work.

      So thanks heaps for stopping by anyway and for your lovely comment.

      A skeet shooter? Fantastic! What interesting things we get to discover in these blogs.

  5. Hi Harry. I really missed you.

    I really like your 'adolescent piece of kitsch'. I think the problems you had with it had to do with using a cannon instead of dart.

    I understand the frustration in handling certain materials. I have projects in my head that I can't execute because I don't have the expertise. Bummer!

    I empathize with your being fed up with school. I remember just wanting to make a painting just for fun. I was sick of having to justify everything.

    As for the research about your work, you've done it already on your blog. I kept a journal and most of my thesis show supporting document came directly from my journal. Your journal is this blog. The agency of the materials as it relates to your passionate feelings on Whitely or Fukishima. It's all here.

    You'll slog through the last of it and then paint with ecstatic exuberance or indignant rage. You'll paint wherever your feelings take you.

    1. Hugs for missing me, Davida. And i missed having your wise counsel and warm support. Thanks for being a good friend.

      Youve hit the nail on the head ... "sick of having to justify everything". I just hope i can get back to a state of 'innocence' where i can simply paint for the sheer fun and thrill of it.

      And you right about the blog. Our Head of School says that we can use blogs as journals for assessment. Ah, but then i lose my captaincy over this blog! Then this too has to be 'justified' to some authority figure. And i so treasure the Wild West freedom of blogging on my own cognizance.

      Anyway, i don't think it's ever been done where i study. They hardly even raise an interest in the fact i have a blog at all. They seldom ever visit, have never mentioned my blog to me. Most have never visited. The School's own internal blogging system died through lack of interest and use a year ago.

      So i maintain paper journals as well, largely consisting of images and text lifted straight off this blog with minor editing!!

      Exuberance and indignant rage ... how well you sum me up, lolz. Plus a big dollop of depression, of course. So i'm waiting for the next wave of exubs to hit so i can some more done!

      Warm regards.

  6. I think it's a good thing the faculty at school don't visit your blog. Then your eloquence will not blunted by repetition. Then once you are finally done with the writing you can go back to using a cannon to make paintings. It will also help to blow off some steam.