ESSAY: ICON ORACLE: Ritual Care for Lost Minds

Genevieve Sartor, September 4 2018

In Kirsty Whiten’s striking collection of portraits we find ourselves in an imaginary clearing where magic happens, where time has stopped. The physicality of her characters wear their energy and anoint each other with it: viewing these paintings is to look through the keyhole of inner and outer worlds.  


The first series in the collection, “Anointing,” combines recognisable, ritualistic iconography from myriad cultural histories. Yet as Whiten dons her subjects with beads, feathers and cloth she does so with distilled intention, using identifiable forms of ceremonial representation as signifiers for the meaning in each piece. We find her subjects in this series in the middle of a spell that is being cast together, and a mutual incantation is depicted through a remarkable application of colour and choice of medium. The matte acrylic backgrounds of these pieces emphasise the vibrant oils used on her characters, proclaiming their importance from out of the muted darkness that surrounds them. In this sense Whiten too is anointing her subjects through this subtle and effective message of how paint can bring forth meaning from darkness. 


The intention and attraction between the subjects of her “Anointing” pieces are at once mysterious and clear.  Passive and active, public and private are subsumed in an invocation marked by trails of colour that smudge lips, legs, breasts and the soles of feet. Each painting has its own colour, with which one figure anoints the other, and gestural marking suggests a healing is taking place. Whiten’s one-colour choice unique to each of her characters increases the depicted intimacy, the quality of which exceeds a solely sexual interpretation of her predominantly nude subjects. Instead, she shows the sheer power of what one person’s energy does when focused on another in ways exceeding the sexed body. Her characters are individual summoners: claiming and proclaiming each other so as to draw the self forward from out of the body, showing the importance of acknowledged identification in remedying what has been wounded. 


There is therefore a haecceity central to each painting, an emphasis on the marked “thisness” between her characters as essential to a healing process. Rather than portraying the ritual healing as one that relies on an omnipotent and nameless divine or on escape through the physical union of bodies, what is conveyed here is that the individuals in these paintings are themselves each uniquely wielding the divine that is in and of themselves through their bodies. Among various tropes of magical signs and signifiers, the ceremonious anointing taking place is both transsubstantive and resoundingly personal. The reciprocant figure in each piece throws their head back in the vulnerable and replenishing ecstasy of being profoundly and intimately acknowledged. 


Conversely, in the second series of the collection “Abasement,” we have something different, and again, Whitten’s remarkably expressive use of medium is clear.  Depicted in watercolour, the “Abasement” paintings appeal to vulnerabilities we can’t ever truly show. The character series of four starkly painted nude portraits conveys a complex melancholia, and here we find something more than a standard depiction of nameless interior struggle. Unlike the dominant one-colour, dark background/vibrant foreground juxtaposition that powerfully conveys the dense magic evoked in the “Anointing” series, we can first see in the “Abasement” paintings that its solitary subject is without context. 


In this series a white, paintless background implies a blanketed, inward isolation, and the multiple colours that wash over the character’s face and surround their body further recounts more than just a sedge of emotions. Instead, in “Abasement” perception emerges from out of the unperceived as a locationless and fractured suffering. The emotions of the character are raked over with colours that mark their head, their clasped hands and slumped back, while an atmospheric grief tonally envelops the character through coloured auras. The viewer is taken in by a figure whose posture is alternatively crouched, resigned, taute, and in anguish. The subject’s androgyny furthers the sense that it is what is being felt that is of importance above all else; the body is imprinted through the weight of individual experience without and beyond gender differentials.  


Kirsty Whiten’s collection “Icon Oracle: Ritual Care for Lost Minds” shows what many of us wish we could: an interiority exposed without the fear of reprehension. In doing so, she powerfully brings forth a depiction of what is private without any excavatory sabotage, handling the “lost minds” of her characters with ritualistic care and redemptive vindication that furthers the message each piece and indeed, this entire collection, represents. The nudity, race and gender of her subjects are secondary as she marks their bodies in ways that uniquely absolve the divisions between mind and body by showing the importance of intent as something that can give way to healing. The sense these paintings give, which is to intimate the sheer power of what energy can do, affirms that the healing power of acknowledgement between individual spirits can work magic, and the visually arresting quality of this collection invites viewers to partake. 


Genevieve Sartor, 2018

Trinity College Dublin