Getting to know you: Whiting Tennis at Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And a little extra for the sake of contrast

It is sometimes difficult to look at a particular artist’s exhibition and not have a cascade of forerunners’ names wash through one’s mind. Of course, whether readily perceptible or not, every artist has been influenced by someone who came before; likewise, a viewer’s appreciation of said art may rely on and benefit from a knowledge of that art history. Yet, much like this writer trafficking in the comfort of truisms, that influence resonates louder and longer in the work of some artists than it does in others.

The Whiting Tennis exhibit, “My Side of the Mountain,” is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through March 23. The title for the show comes from Jean Craighead George’s book of the same name. The book tells the tale of a young man who leaves his city home at a young age to make a new life for himself on some family acreage, where he proceeds to make a living off the land. Written for a young audience, it comes from a time when this country was still making the dramatic shift from a largely agrarian to urban society, and the skills the main character develops to survive were becoming lost to the larger culture.

When Jenni Sorkin reviewed Tennis’s 2008 exhibit at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, she made mention of this book. I also find some comfort that Tennis’ work reminded Sorkin of the artist David Smith’s work. But Tennis’s drawings, paintings, and in some instances, his collages at Hallie Ford brought Smith to mind for me, not his sculpture. Then again, it wasn’t just echoes of Smith; a whole generation of artists sprung to mind, from Picasso to Smith and even the Northwest’s very own Louis Bunce. Nor would I be too far out of line to suggest that Tennis’s sculpture echo some work by his contemporary, Cris Bruch, or owe a debt to the likes of Martin Puryear, but only in Bruch’s and Puryear’s more architectural pieces.

Whiting Tennis, "White Nun"/Greg Kucera Galley

Whiting Tennis, “White Nun”/Greg Kucera Galley

Still, it might better serve us to concentrate less on similarities and influences, and more on the overarching subject matter of architecture in both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional work at Hallie Ford. Or rather, how the vertically-oriented architectural structures become stand-ins for animals and human. Many of the four-legged depictions are titled with the names of animals. And stand-alone pieces like “White Nun,” built as an encasement or cabinet (and not unlike a torture device, the medieval Iron Maiden, for example, although empty), replace the human form.

That makes a certain sense. Much has been written about how skyscrapers represent values such as efficient functionality and social “stature.” And if this is so, then how do we go about placing the likes of Rem Koolhaas’ and Frank Gehry’s  horizontal, atypical structures in a tangential analogy when their stylizations remain outnumbered by the earlier model in new construction? (Not that either of these well-known architects are above building upward or that Tennis does not also build outward.) Regardless, it would be short-sighted and disingenuous not to consider innovations that continue to be made and lend a certain individuality to new buildings, or for that matter, sculpture within the tower paradigm.

Whiting Tennis, "Aarvark"/Greg Kucera Gallery

Whiting Tennis, “Aarvark”/Greg Kucera Gallery

And that may be what I find most perplexing in Whiting Tennis’s work. There is strong evidence of proficiency and he is no doubt a prodigious artist (Tennis is fond of the maquette and the sketch), but in work that is so centered upon a type of figuration, albeit abstracted out, the individual voice is muted by the history of familiar explorations. (The same can be said about a lot of abstract art as well. Heck, about a lot of art, period.)

Tennis does try to step off of this path from time to time. His plywood replicas of an old washer-dryer set and a clock/radio show age, a history of use, and therefore provide a bit of a narrative. I would have liked the radio more had its power cord been made of wood a la Conrad Bakker, yet it was the way the radio was displayed that held my attention for a longer time than most of the other work in this show. Sitting on the shelf next to it was a little armature covered in an unknown white (plaster?) material (there was no mention of this item on the placard). It was out of place and unfinished. And it was perhaps the most generous of all the work. I imagined it as something Tennis might make in bed right before going to sleep, much like others would read a book. This little discrete object made the artist all the more human, and made this writer wonder if Tennis is holding back.


I saw the Whiting Tennis exhibit on a Friday. I visited the Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum at the University of Oregon the next day to see “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” a group show of the twelve, to-date Hallie Ford Foundation Fellowship recipients, which originated at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft last year. (I had to chuckle: Whiting Tennis won the Arlene Schnitzer Prize at the inaugural Contemporary Northwest Arts Award in 2008 and was showing at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art… Not much of a coincidence.)

Heidi Schwegler, "Exasecond"/Museum of Contemporary Craft

Heidi Schwegler, “Exasecond”/Museum of Contemporary Craft

Stand-outs for this writer are 2010 Fellows Heidi Schwegler and David Eckard. Schwegler’s “Exasecond” is playfully and humorously brazen while Eckard’s video lament, “Comet,” is considerably more toned down, but no less poignant, than much of his other work that incorporates sculpture and performance. 2013 Fellow Mike Bray’s enigmatic “Lead and Glass” demonstrates a cerebral direction in art making we don’t see much of here in the Northwest. For spectacle, I would recommend Sang-ah Choi’s “Packaging the Pink.”

Jordan Schnitzer’s collection of Kara Walker’s art is also on display at the museum. Her video of a shadow puppet play, “National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road” is heart-rending.

One Response.

  1. hillery lay says:

    i liked the writers idea of an artist having a little project on their nightstand to work on before sleep, like a book.

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