The trees in Linda Whitaker’s landscapes have become more and more anthropomorphic, emotional and sexy in the last few years. Her new, large oil paintings star a faceless, strong-bodied female figure, who is the wise center of metaphorically imaged psychic epiphanies. Her shift from landscape to figure is not so much an abrupt change as it is an evolutionary development, abetted by Whitaker’s recent six-month painting residency in New Mexico, where that severer geography deprived this spirit of a hiding place.
She also came back with the 12 drawings in the “Taos Series.” These drawings (14” x 17”) are bold and dark. She uses charcoal to make a black so dense it seems to absorb light. The close-up studies of objects, a cactus, a cluster of stalactites, have an absolute presence. There are landscapes with recognizable mountains, gullies and dry riverbeds. At the same time, curved lines suggest thighs; chasms become crotches.
A drawing of a heart-shaped wreath fashioned from thorned wood reappears in two of the small oil paintings (12” x 14”). The heart in “Evless” darkly frames an inviting landcape, where a bright yellow slash beckons. The heart in “Oreguen” is white and bloody red. Inside there are green crosses, and across the top of the picture, a bar of yellow like a beneficent sky. I describe most of the smaller oils as abstract landscapes, each with an allusion to a horizon or a hill. They are denser, flatter and busier than the larger paintings.
The large oils (42” x 48”) have a spaciousness, and a luminous clarity of colors. The juxtaposition of unusual colors jars one’s senses, first with a surfeit of pleasure, each color is so luscious, and then with the painful sensation o fhaving one’s perceptual muscles stretched in the attempt to take in the reverberations of the clash.
I was particularly intrigued by her use of pinks and yellows to move the natural elements of her compositions into a magical, unearthly dimension. A soft pink curve is on the right side of “Dreaming the Door Can Be Opened at Any Time.” A woman is asleep on a floating turquoise leaf, that is outlined with canary yellow. Her sculptural back and exaggerated buttocks are turned towards the viewer. Tendrils pierce the leaf, spiraling up from an umbilical source under the water. The pink and yellow are gorgeous, innocent colors; the sleeper is voluptuous and chaste. Above her head there is a pale yellow rectangle, the dream subject. In the immediate foreground a large hand warns us not to disturb the dreamer, reaches up to open that tantalizing door, and tries to block out the terrifying possibilities of the unknown.
The female figure assumes the same stance in two of the paintings. In “She Changes Everything She Touches,” we see her sturdy, reddish-brown body from the neck down. Her upturned, outstretched palms generate and support two columns of light. Next to her, there is an unfurled leaf frond (an image from one of the drawings), and a pod, as big as herself, full of violet seeds. The figure in “The Earth, The Water, The Fire, The Air, Returns, Returns, Returns, Returns” stands in the middle of a jumbled landscape, her legs blending into the green ground. Translucent steam or smoke streams from her palms, obscuring her face. Hot pink defines the background, and the magical yellow appears in a thick, looped line on the left. In the lower foreground, a fleshy blue leaf is undergoing some sort of disturbingly sexual transformation. The first version I mentioned is about generative power, natural and imaginative. The latter version is about sublimation, showing an alchemical whirlwind where the life force at work is playful and frightening.
In “Leap of Faith,” Whitaker freezes the figure, who is flying out of the frame of the picture, her head already out of sight, in the attitude of a crucifixion, her arms touching both edges of the canvas. Vivid plant forms and luminescent colors create an atmosphere of joyous affirmation where the goddess crucified becomes a subversive, anti-patriarchal image.
In this show, Linda Whitaker shows off her mastery in manipulating her extraordinary palette of colors to achieve heightened, psychological effects. In her paintings, and black and white drawings, her compositions are fanciful and dramatic. Whitaker’s work is courageous, generous and affirming, a rare gift these days.