THE MARRIAGE OF THE SKULL AND THE ROSE
As an object the human skull is a fact. But skulls are never quite so simple, being as they are wrapped in another type of flesh: layers of cultural association and symbolism. This thick invisible skin is all that most people see; trying to peel it away, to reshape it, is difficult.
For over forty years human skulls have characterized Tim Whiten’s art—as both material and multivalent symbol. Like much of his early work they were at first about covering and uncovering—skulls housed in adobe boxes, skinned with chewing gum, and sewn into leather.
In the mid-1980s he started working with glass and made Cosmos (1985) a bubble filled cast skull. This transformation—from opaque to transparent; from durable to fragile; from solid to liquid to solid-like liquid —is a profound transformation. It speaks of Whiten’s chief concern—perceptual and spiritual transformation.
The rose of course is a similarly longstanding metaphysical symbol, as central to Whiten’s work as the skull. “Rose” is a flower but it is also importantly a color. Think Homer’s “rosy fingered Dawn”—Whiten used “rose essence” to make drawings in the 1970s.
Think of Yeats who wrote: “FAR-OFF, most secret, and inviolate Rose, Enfold me in my hour of hours; where those/ Who sought thee in the Holy Sepulchre.” As he intimates the rose is a fleshy vortex articulating an interior. Like the skull, it protects a volume from view— In Perceval (2013) Whiten has finally married his two symbols into a rose-colored cast glass skull. The glass is the liquid mediator between petal and bone. As Roni Horn and physicists insist, glass remains a “super-cooled liquid”. It retains the right to change its future form.
A scientist could tell you this was cast from an African-American’s skull—it is Whiten’s self-portrait, the culmination of a long exploration. Whiten says Perceval will be his final work with skulls, as far as he can see. It is not macabre, shedding any inherited dread of “death”; peeling that invisible skin back to reveal celebration and possibility—the rosy dawn not just of death, but of a new life.
For more information on Tim Whiten’s current exhibition in Toronto visit here.
-Contributed by Jarrett Earnest