Brett Whiteley, Art, Life, and The Other Thing, 1978
Triptych: oil, glass eye, hair, pen and ink on cardboard, plaster, photography, oil, dried PVA, cigarette butts, hypodermic syringe on board
90.4 x 77.2, 230 x 122, 31.1 x 31.1 cm
signed and dated in black ink 1.r. ‘Brett Whiteley 1978′
signed verso in black oil on masking tape ‘BRETT WHITELEY’
photograph courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Feted as an Australian artistic hero long before becoming a drug addict, Brett Whiteley’s paintings were a powerful stimulant in the development of a resonating national mythology; questioning whether Whiteley’s artistic practice was only due to drugs, or whether Whiteley was inherently artistic. Brett Whiteley’s portrait, Art, Life, and the Other Thing, was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1978, revealing the overindulgent nature of Whiteley’s addiction, and the way this was received by critics. Despite Whiteley’s portrait no longer stirring the same controversy, the effect of his visual [drug] confession still remains.
The Archibald-winning portrait includes a candid admission of Whiteley’s drug addiction, punctuated by the powerful imagery of a screaming monkey, writhing with nails through its forearms, being offered a syringe by an ominous hand; illuminating the tortuous nature of an addict’s craving. The triptych painting composed of three panels portrays Whiteley as a fragmented self, with each panel revealing a different persona. Whiteley experienced great difficulty in producing a portrait, much because of the impossibility of reconciling his schizophrenic nature; specifically, Whiteley’s numerous personas (artist, drug addict). The painting presents Whiteley’s struggle with the difficulties of pleasure as influenced by the spirit of rock ’n’ roll hedonism; revealing the difficulty of being an artist, whilst dealing with his addiction. The portrait uses mixed media such as painting, photography, and found objects (syringe, cigarette butts); exposing Whiteley’s different levels of connectedness to reality, amidst what seemed like a constant drug-induced haze. In the middle panel, Whiteley makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith, a previous Archibald-winning portrait. The obvious parody creates proximity with the former Archibald-winner, citing the debate created by Dobell’s work, surrounding notions of distortion and modern art. The portrait also references the writhing, twisted figures of Francis Bacon, a major influence on Whiteley’s artistic practice. Citing Bacon’s painting Study for a Self-Portrait, Whiteley echoes Bacon’s tendency to create self-portraits, acknowledging the potent composition of the triptych painting.
Disjuncture within the traditional canon of portraiture and the traditions of the Archibald Prize sparked critical responses to the artwork and raised questions of whether Whiteley’s portrait was in fact considered art. Due to the thematic and stylistic nature of the artwork, the ‘tug-of- war’ attitude towards the portrait revealed Whiteley’s position as being between a rock and a hard place, or rather, between a monkey and syringe. Unscathed by the controversy, the judging panel made up of trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (including artist trustees: John Olsen and John Coburn), were unanimous in voting Whiteley’s painting as the winning portrait. Critics were harsh when discussing the mythology created around Whiteley’s persona, perpetuating the tendency of larger contexts of Whiteley’s portrait (historical, artistic and literary) to nurture his sensibility towards alcohol and illicit drugs. Using drugs as an alibi, Whiteley exposed his inability to remain just ‘the artist’. Using drugs to mythologise himself, Whiteley combined artistic justification and recreational drug-use for the sheer hell of it.
Now remaining a part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Whiteley’s resonance as Australian artistic hero is feted for his ability to chase artistic greatness, whilst consumed by ‘chasing the dragon’. Despite Whiteley’s suffering under the burden of his own greatness and submission to the deeply seductive nature of – and ultimately self-destructive passion – drug addiction, Whiteley’s capacity and undeniable skill as an artist created a portrait that transcended the corrosive nature of heroin addiction.