Mark Whalen

Mark Whalen interview • jay howell

The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote about a strange case involving a Doctor named Jekyll and his alter ego, one Edward Hyde. The novella’s protagonist/antagonist famously flip flops from living as a sociable, mild-mannered doctor to a wild seeker of vice by drinking a serum. I’ve definitely tippled said serum with Sydney-born artist Mark Whalen. I’ve seen the transformation firsthand. Less so with his longtime friend Jay Howell, but I’ve heard tales… I’ve seen the drawings of couples 69’ing while skating down the street, the amateur tattoos poked into friends and neighbors. The evidence is there, and the diagnosis is clear: What we have on our hands is a dual case of Jekyll-and-Hydeism.

Now while the hedonistic Hyde analogy may play well to the lads in the back holding the tall cans, it is really the parallel to the good doctor that is at the heart of their stories and friendship. Since meeting in San Francisco in 2007 both have worked tirelessly at their crafts, and have spent more time than would be considered reasonable in the pursuit of their respective endeavors. Galleries have come and gone, fortunes have changed hands. Both have since packed house and moved far from their homes to land in sunny Los Angeles, California.

It is here that we catch up with the artists in conversation about Mark’s process, his formidable work ethic, and a few hints that there may just be a beaker of serum tucked behind a flat file somewhere in his studio, ready to facilitate the change.

– Sterling Bartlett

All of your work seems to have heavy narrative themes without a ton of explanation; do you like to leave it up to the viewer to come up with their own explanation for what you’re trying to say/show?
I have always been drawn to architecture and geometry, even in my early years. I like to bring it into my works as I find it an interesting platform upon which to base a narrative, building a sense of time or place according to pattern and configuration. And just the same, it can be manipulated to bring about ambiguity or abstract thoughts. This is similar to the ideas behind my use of role-playing and theatre in the figurative element of my practice. They are a direct reflection of human experience, but not necessarily satirical, despite the humor. My new series of sculptural reliefs follow this line of thought. The figures represent the everyday person caught up in construction netting packed with geometric shapes and trash. They draw upon ideologies of creative thought processes and problem solving through the use of color shifts and disjointed compositions. That being said, regardless of what it is that I take from or put into my work, it is inevitable that the viewer will conjure up their own understanding of it – something I believe is critical to the “experience.”

I think all of your work is extremely futuristic and modern. Do you feel that way?
Perhaps in the material and the fabrication you could read that, but the issues I am addressing in the conceptual stage are inherent within us as a species and not necessarily bound by time.

Do you think that you are ultimately trying to create something that doesn’t exist on earth through art?
Not at all. I’m reinterpreting and reconfiguring what is already present here, in the past and present, and no doubt will be in the future too. I manipulate experiences to creating a visual language that provides an alternative way of thinking. My work is not abstract. There are immediately recognizable and relatable subjects within. The cover of this issue for example, with the figure caught and wrapped up in the chair. It could be as simple as a shitty day at the office, a problem that just won’t resolve itself, or a more complex relationship that feels forever broken. People are caught in conundrums all the time. My work is very much about us as a species and our position within this world.

Are you obsessed with being busy, because your work ethic is intense?
I enjoy being busy so I am constantly working on concepts and ideas, researching materials and navigating my way through suppliers, fabricators and production teams. I guess you could say that I am never simply complacent. I feed off the intensity of a heavy workload; it is self-perpetuating in a way. I often feel that if I had too much time on my hands I would overthink what I’m working on and end up becoming unproductive. It’s that old saying I guess, “The grass is always greener.” Maybe it would be nice to have more spare time, or at least to have a slower approach to what I’m doing, but then I’d probably be sitting around wishing things were progressing faster.

During your limited downtime between shows and projects do you look for inspiration or just ice down your eyes and hands?
Again, it’s not a conscious decision. This is my profession. This is my work. It isn’t a tap that I can switch on or off. The process never stops for me. I do, however, plan time away with my wife after big projects, but even then I will be writing down ideas in my notebook while sitting poolside somewhere.

I think about your work as clean chaos. Do you ever reach a point where what you’re trying to create seems too impossible to finish?
Yes, that is an inevitable struggle for me. It actually becomes very frustrating sometimes and I think things that are very possible seem extremely impossible. I get so obsessed with everything being clean and perfect that I probably over do it. But these are things that only I can see. It is just the way I work and the system and process that I have chosen to work with. It does drive me insane sometimes; it is truly a love hate relationship.

We talk about other Australian artists sometimes and we both know there are so many incredible ones. Do you feel like there’s one in particular that Americans need to know about? Or that influenced you in a special way?
There are so many incredible Australian artists, but one that really sticks out for me in particular would be Reko Rennie. He’s an indigenous artist from Melbourne, although his family is Kamilaroi, from northern New South Wales. I find his work incredibly powerful. He has a capacity to subvert traditional and often generalized ideologies about indigenous culture through a very contemporary practice that is truly multidisciplinary.

I get pretty obsessive and emotional about listening to certain music while drawing. Do you listen to any music that you feel feeds inspiration to the pieces, like a cool soundtrack?
I used to be into music quite heavily while working, but for the last three years I find myself watching documentaries. I like to research and educate myself while working on projects. It can be inspiring for me because sometimes I will stumble across a subject or idea that could be worked into a narrative for a painting. At the end of the day it’s just more stimulating for me to listen to something informative.

Did you get a white, stylish, beautiful dog because you like clean, stylish, modern stuff? Kidding… but seriously?
Ha! No, I just really love Bull Terriers. They are hilarious creatures and cartoonish. I think I just got lucky that he’s a really good-looking dog. I bought him from a guy that was keeping all the puppies out in his backyard inside a chicken coop. The mum looked beat up. It was a really sad place, really uncomfortable for me. I’m glad I was able to swoop him up that day. (But on the flipside, I do like the aesthetic of an all white, super stylish, regal-ass looking dog.)

Do you feel like you fulfill your curiosity and experimentation for science by letting your characters do the work for you?
Life is a science itself. I try to fulfill my curiosity and experimentation by interpreting life experiences through my work. I always feel like I am constantly revisiting concepts and ideas but the challenge is to expand upon or progress them with each new project. It is difficult to say if I am ever fulfilled completely because my experiences always come into play, and ultimately work their way back into the work again. There is always an itch to scratch.

Do you ever name anybody in the work or is it more of a feeling about who they are?
No, it is always suggestive. All the figures in the pieces are the same and play out whatever role they are entangled in. There are no specific identities. The figures represent an emotion or feeling in the given narrative.

Thank you for your time, to see more of Mark’s work be sure to check out