Mark Whalen’s work is a bold visual delight. Playful, pointed and subversively sensual, his painting and sculpture offer lively insights into peculiar miniature worlds, intimate encounters and the micro-narratives of life’s daily tangles.
The alternative territories Whalen creates fuse graphic design with the influences of his background as a street artist. Gaining a steady following through self-organised exhibitions, Whalen became known for his gridded landscapes, reminiscent of early video games combined with M.C Escher’s impossible drawings. The repetitive geometric shapes doubling as carpets, ponds and staircases set backdrops to nude humanoids engaged in archaic ritual. Kneeling, bowing, sprawled across swimming pools and coyly hiding both genitals and faces, the figures evoke satirical notions of prayer, spirituality and sacrifice underpinned by a voyeuristic eroticism of dominance and humiliation.
Whalen’s sculptural and ceramic works present a more intimate side of his practice. 2 Equals 1 is a small clay sheet that resembles a crumpled piece of paper. Hand-painted onto its creases – as if a discarded doodle – are two androgynous figures sitting head-to-head on chairs balanced vertically on top of each other. The figures share an ambiguous kiss or embrace with an awkward but sensuous rapport. Framed by two pillars evocative of masculine Roman architecture and painted in dark blue reminiscent of the traditionally female subjects of Ancient Greek vases or British Spode ceramics, the image is a curious collision of craft, antiquity and gendered artistic symbols that serve as a jovial nudge to the mystery and charm of human interaction.
Combining the ordinary and the absurd, Whalen’s solo show, Squeeze, at Arsham Fieg Gallery in New York, centres around witty portrayals of compression and entrapment. In the exhibition, three large totem poles cast in pastel hues with neon interventions sandwich human-like faces between everyday objects and recognisable household materials. Similarly, the title work, a large painting with aluminium chrome hands literally squeezing the image, depicts two people uncompromisingly entwined, cramped within the tight frame of the canvas. Somewhere between Keith Harring’s sharp design, Koons’ manufactured chrome finishes and the tangled limbs of an Emma Cousin painting, Whalen’s exhibition transforms the everyday into a vibrant, uncanny beauty that exposes the colourful claustrophobia of daily life.