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Kenneth (Ken) Ronald WHISSON (b.1927; d.2022)

Ken Whisson was born in 1927 in the suburb of Lilydale in Melbourne’s outer east.  He studied painting at Melbourne’s Swinbourne Institute of Technology from 1944-45, however the formalities and stricture inherent in this environment did not suit Whisson, who left art school to train with Danila Vassilieff (1946-47).  This significant pairing was a turning point in Whisson’s career.  Vassilieff taught Whisson about immediacy, and spontaneity, his legacy keenly felt to this day.  In 1954, Whisson embarked on a round the world trip that was to last sixteen years, and take him to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Whisson’s personal iconography emerged as a consequence of the cultural forms and symbols encountered during these years, most specifically articulated through the hieroglyph like language that emerged in Whisson’s paintings and drawings from the seventies onwards.

Ken Whisson’s career is enjoying a resurgence, particularly in the secondary market where his works are rare and keenly sought after.  Recognition of Whisson’s talent came slowly, described in 1983 as the “Cinderella of Melbourne expressionism”*, he was ‘marginalised’ by art historians and commentators in favour of dominant artists of his generation such as Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.  As Curator of the 1985 touring exhibition of Whisson’s work, Bernice Murphy wrote;

“So much energy seems to have been given to ‘square pegging’ Whisson’s art as a body of work as somehow eccentric and apart from both conventional expectations of vision, and the general topography of Australian art of the last three decades, that it has artificially located Whisson as a quintessential ‘outsider’”**

Whisson’s status as an ‘outsider’ left him free to pursue an altogether unique visual language within the context of modern Australian art.  Language is at the core of Whisson’s art.  “Painting …, is a kind of extra-linguistic inquiry, perhaps more closely akin to forms of visual association that psychologists encourage their patients to practice, as a means of peeling back the defensive layers to reach the root of a problem.”***  Through abbreviating and abstracting the visual forms of his surrounds, Whisson evolved a visual means of communicating, “a strange, idiosyncratic manner of utterance, through which he [brought] the world into being on a two-dimensional surface.”****

First impressions of a Whisson canvas evoke a strange curiosity in the viewer, generated through the intangible familiarity enacted by the abstracted forms and script.  “What at first seems clumsy takes on a feeling of instinctive correctness, what seems ugly becomes unexpectedly compelling.  In the choice of colours, which originally seemed so discordant, one becomes aware of unusual but lasting relationships.  Abstracts blobs and smears resolve themselves into figures and parts of a landscape.”*****  This process requires effort on the part of the viewer, however the eventual catalysing of ideas and intent proves extremely rewarding.

One of the most enigmatic figures in contemporary Australian art, Whisson’s work has been in innumerable shows and is represented in all major Australian public collections.  He was honoured in 2012 at Heide with the first major retrospective exhibition of his work, ‘Ken Whisson: As If’. 

*  Bernice Murphy (Curator),  Ken Whisson, Paintings 1957 – 1985 [Exhib. Cat.],  Broken Hill City Art Gallery,  1985,  p.9

**  Bernice Murphy (Curator),  Ken Whisson, Paintings 1957 – 1985 [Exhib. Cat.],  Broken Hill City Art Gallery,  1985,  p.8

***  Ken Whisson, A Survey [Exhib. Cat.],  1990,  pp.4-5

****  Bernice Murphy (Curator),  Ken Whisson, Paintings 1957 – 1985 [Exhib. Cat.],  Broken Hill City Art Gallery,  1985,  p.7

*****  Ken Whisson, A Survey [Exhib. Cat.],  1990,  p.1


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