IF you live in Edinburgh, you may already know Kirsty Whiten’s work. Three of her animal-headed figures feature on the gates of the Bongo Club on the Cowgate. More appear on a wall mural in Dalmeny Street and on giant paste-up posters on nearby Leith Walk.
“Working in the street is the absolute opposite of me working away quietly in my studio on my own for weeks on end, which is usually how things are,” says Whiten.
Seven years ago the artist returned to the Fife village of Craigrothie, where she grew up, after over a decade living in the capital.
“I love the contact with people, and the reactions you get on the street. People are not expecting to see art, and it just goes straight in.”
Exotic and bold, Whiten’s figures often captivate and provoke.
“Something draws people to them,” she says. “Some of the figures and poses have this iconic element. That’s what works best in the street, and I’ve been working more like that, on purpose. To find the strongest, cleanest, boldest, most iconic image I could make of a subject.”
Having exhibited consistently in Scotland and internationally since she was awarded a first in fine art from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1999, Whiten now presents ICON ORACLE, an exhibition of five large oil paintings, eight watercolours and a selection of smaller studies.
The former – the “icons” – feature figures involved in a ritual of some kind. In a series titled Anointing, one woman tenderly applies coloured pigment to another’s body. In Initiation (marked), a man cradles another in his arms. The pose is reminiscent of La Pieta, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary with the body of her son after the Crucifixion.
“I always loved La Pieta – I studied it at art college,” says Whiten, who also cites as an influence The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sensual sculpture of the Christian mystic.
“These are religious works, they are supposed to be telling the Christian story,” she says. “But what the artist is giving you has got so much blood and guts and heart to it. It’s really human. There’s sexuality too. In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa she is totally orgasmic. These qualities are, I think, why people really respond to them, and why they are very well loved.”
Whiten continues: “Maybe it was to do with what I was going through personally at the time when I was painting these, but the power of one person holding, cradling another, is very strong to me.
“There’s acknowledgement in that moment of being held, of having complete trust in another. That ritual/initiation of being marked, of changing from one thing to another thing, of being acknowledged. That’s really powerful.”
An atheist raised by scientists, Whiten says her recent work explores “a longing for the meaningful, symbolic actions, rites of passage and initiation, ceremony and a sense of the sacred”. It’s not for nothing the exhibition is subtitled “Ritual Care for Lost Minds”. In an essay accompanying the exhibition she writes: “These paintings ... affirm that the healing power of acknowledgement between individual spirits can work magic.”
Themes of healing and magic are present in the Oracles, delicate, jewel-coloured watercolours depicting formidable figures such as The Beast, The Elders, The Crone and The Great Mother.
“The Oracles have a much more shamanic feel to them,” says Whiten. “I was thinking about the kind of archetypes in Jungian analysis. The idea of some sort of collective unconscious where symbols can help you explain your life.”
The Oracles, she explains, could function similarly to Tarot cards.
She adds: “I imagined that each of these Oracles, you could lay them out with someone, and talk about the images they see within them. That they were tools for navigating this subconscious, symbolic stuff.
“Each of them has three titles which meant something to me, so The Crone is also The Mountain and The Witness. You could go on all day giving her names if you wanted. It would depend on how you felt about her and how many layers you drilled down through your pyschology.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a book of the imagery featured in ICON ORACLE. It follows 2016’s WRONGERRITES, Whiten’s book of mis-remembered rituals, and both have been crowdfunded by the artist’s supporters.
Rather than a vehicle for selling paintings, Whiten says they are “art as books” – works of art in themselves.
“I have a lot of supporters who can’t necessarily buy a large painting but are really keen to have some of it for themselves,” she says. “It’s the same as me – I can’t collect art but I have a lot of art books. I love making this thing that is accessible and affordable and contains whatever powers are within the work itself. I think it will communicate to people.”
Soon after this exhibition at Arusha Gallery, Whiten will travel to New York for a month-long residency at The Mothership NYC, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“They have studios where there are three permanent New York artists and then they have spaces where international artists can come for residencies,” she explains. “They’ve got a community there where they do salons every week and a space where they have performances. It seems like the sort of place where it will be really easy to slot in and meet people.
Whiten adds: “That’s what I want to do: I want access to as many artists who are working with similar subject matter to me so I can collaborate and cross-pollinate.”
A working artist for the best part of two decades, she has largely taken a DIY approach to exhibiting and says crowfunding suits her work.
“My work is a little bit awkward in that I make quite traditional figurative paintings but the content can be really cutting and too difficult for the traditional places to accept. But because I’m doing this traditional technique, the contemporary art scene are like: ‘why are you painting?’”
“I’m just a little bit awkward to pigeonhole, so I find doing things myself to be the best way. That’s the other lovely thing about the whole Kickstarter culture. I can reach out to my audience and have this personal contact where the people who support me, literally support me. I really love that.”
ICON ORACLE is the first time Whiten has put out a publication while also putting on an exhibition, and she says it feels “quite a luxury” to have had the backing and support of the Arusha Gallery.
“I was used to doing everything myself but Arusha have my back in a lot of ways,” she says. “It means that I have been able to do more work, and better work, than I’ve ever managed to pull together before.”