Member Spotlight l Stephen Whisler

This week we recognize Stephen Whisler who began his journey of art and nature in the late 1970s. Above is his work Der Goldwald made in the Black Forest, Germany in 1979.

“The Plant Works series (below) are photographs that I worked on from 1977 to 1980, documents of my private performances with plants. At that time I was intrigued with the notion that all of human and animal energy is ultimately derived from plants which take their energy from the sun. These early performances of mine were an attempt to show that relationship in a shamanistic fashion, performing a kind of ritual with the plants. I would sometimes use a knife to cut into the plant and then press the flesh of my hand into the cut, or I would transfer something from the plant to myself as in Plant Work 11 where I take the spines from one palm of a prickly pear cactus and stick them into the palm of my hand.” 

“As I traveled to various locations in California, Arizona and Germany I would set up my camera on a tripod and using a shutter release cable I photographed the performance myself with no one else present. Early in the project I mostly used a three image format in the printing but later I sometimes found that one or two images told the story. I see the photographs not only as the document of the performances but as art works in themselves. Of course photographs also use the energy from the sun to lock a point of time onto film and paper in a kind of symbiotic relationship with my performances. As I look back at these works from 45 years ago I still feel the yearning of my young self to make a connection with the plant world and our world itself; just trying to make some sense out of my existence on earth.”

Above are Whisler’s Titan launch drawings from 2016 and his performative work with a sculpture titled Walking The Bomb from 2017. He states “The Bomb is a human scale version of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. This bomb-shaped sculpture is exactly my size, and is handcrafted from wood and sheet metal. Dressed in a dark grey suit with a white shirt, I walk the streets towing The Bomb behind me.” The performance was first initiated in Joshua Tree, California and a recent iteration was included in the ecoartspace exhibition Fragile Rainbow: Traversing Habitats curated by Sue Spaid at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, in New York City, May 2022. 

Whisler has created works on paper, sculptures, and performances as part of an ongoing investigation of military actions. Through these works, the viewer can appreciate the formal aspects with bold shapes, richly colored and textured surfaces, and dazzling compositions; while also considering the meaning behind images of war planes, atomic bombs, and other tools of destruction. The artist’s tight focus forces us to confront the reality of modern warfare. In a plane or drone, the war is fought from a distance. Humans are far from sight. Up close, the ominous silhouettes and angular shapes of military equipment are imposing and hard to ignore. His imagery often forces the viewer to question whether they are a spectator or a target.Stealth 1 (below) from 2019 is a pastel drawing of a stealth bomber. To create these large-scale drawings (20 x 70 inches), Whisler looks at imagery sourced from the internet, then draws them in Illustrator. He uses this hard-edge template to create the final large-scale drawings, which are rendered in thousands of pastel fingerprints. He refers to the fingerprints as “the most ancient ‘digital’ technique,” like thousands of bits of evidence; evidence of the horrible potential of human creations.

Stephen Whisler was born into a military family in the middle of the age of anxiety in the 1950s. His father was a Navy pilot, and the family of five moved often, from the East Coast where he was born in Virginia, to California and back to the East Coast, Taiwan and then California again. Whisler studied art at UC Davis where he met his wife, Sabine Reckewell. After receiving his MFA at Claremont Graduate University the couple moved to New York where they lived and worked for 27 years. He has exhibited his work at Artist’s Space, The New Museum and various other galleries and museums in New York, California, Chicago and Wisconsin. In 2008, Whisler and his wife sold their downtown New York City loft and moved to Napa, California where they lived and worked for thirteen years. Recently, they returned to the East Coast and settled in Saugerties, New York where the artist continues his explorations.  stephenwhisler.net

Featured Images: ©Stephen Whisler, Der Goldwald, Black Forest, 1979, Gold leaf on birkin, birch; ©Stephen Whisler, Plant Works, 1976 to 1980, photographs; ©Stephen Whisler, Titan Titan II Launch, 2016, V2 in Der Wüste, 2016, and Titan II Launch II, 2016;©Stephen Whisler, Walking the Bomb, 2017, Joshua Tree, California; ©Stephen Whisler, The Fat Man at 11:02 AM, 2018, Papier-mache, wood steel and steel wire, room sized installation with actual size sculpture of the Fat Man bomb used on Hiroshima, 60 x 60 x 126 feet; ©Stephen Whisler, Stealth 1, 2019, Pastel on paper, 42 x 70 inches; Artist selfie, 2021. 

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ecoartspace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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