Exclusive Interview with Kirsty Whiten

Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 07 Apr 2009

Kirsty Whiten is a talented illustrator and painter who's been creating works for the past nine years in Paris and Edinburgh, earning a reputation as one of the leading Scottish artists of her generation. She caught our collective eye with her latest work for an exhibition at Stolen Space, Donkey Hostage, which features intimate struggles as men and boys are taken hostage, cared for, teased, and broken in like horses. Humor and power are definitely fortes of this bold lady.


Take advantage of a spectacular exclusive interview with the artiste herself in an interview with Kirsty Whiten. The interview continues below:

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?


As I get older the thing I enjoy the most is seeing that my work is on a certain path and seeing it’s development and evolution – and although it’s a very gradual – it is going somewhere quite powerful, and I’m absolutely drawn on by that. Each time I make stuff it makes me even hungrier to take the next step, and to see where that is leading me. I think that’s my favorite part of it all – that I just can’t help myself; I have to go on to the next bit. It feels too good.


When you’re working are you fully involved in what you’re doing or is your mind already planning ahead?


I don’t have quite enough time to work so, yeah, I’m backed-up totally. The ideas that I’m desperate to work on next I’ve had in my head for at least a year, just mulling them over and developing them further, so now I really want to get them out, and start making them into active images.

Your most recent work Donkey Hostage is a series of drawings and paintings depicting intimate struggles as boys are taken hostage by girls and broken in like horses. Tell me more about the subjects and if there’s a specific statement you’re trying to make?


I’m not trying to make a specific statement. I like to keep things open and let people come to the images, be churned up and provoked, but I’m not wanting for any one set conclusion to be reached about any one image. With this recent work I had the idea that I wanted to explore the entanglement of men and women and their leaning on each other, their dominating of each other, their needing of each other, and – ultimately - their capture. I wanted to make a whole series of images depicting different little facets and glimpses, so that the viewer picks up on these little nuances, but never really gets to see what’s going on. You just get little glimpses of it.


These elements of control and surrender have been recurring themes in your work. What fascinates you so much about the subject of dominance and submission between men and women?


I’m completely fascinated by why people behave the way they behave and how we seem so simple on the surface, and then there’s layers and layers of subtleties beneath. In Donkey Hostage the woman is taking the man hostage with these ridiculous fantasy weapons - rolling pins and umbrella swords - when in real life there’s no actual way that she could really overpower a young man with these tools. So there’s this whole other scenario – that the man’s submission is a conscious decision, that it is his gift to the woman. That fascinates me - the psychological power that women have over men - and that this dominance within relationships is something that’s taken and given, in quite a fragile way. It’s very sophisticated but very fragile at the same time.

And do you think there’s a savagery in these interactions?


Definitely. I’m really interested in the continuation of the line from animal to human, and the things, which separate us from them. Whether that’s emotion or intellect, language, culture or spiritual life, I’m really interested in that boundary. I think it’s a very grey area - particularly when it comes to sexuality.


When you’re creating an image do you usually have a specific goal from the beginning?


I’m inspired by everyday life and am watching people all the time, and quite often - and I’m not sure where it comes from - an idea will just drop into my head. So I have this basic concept from the beginning – but often it’s quite fluid and vague – and as I work on the image, and even when I’m taking those first initial photographs of the models, it’s still something that’s developing into something more solid. Then as I draw it, or paint it, it becomes even more focused.


Many of your paintings include elements of fantasy and dress-up, with costumes by Adidas and Nike. How does popular culture influence your work?


I want my work to look contemporary, and I want my images to be about now, because we’re alive now, and that’s what interests me – life now, people now, the amazing time that we live in now. Although the costumes and figures may be reminiscent of some of the grand visuals and poses we’ve seen in images from art history, I want them to be playfully constructed, to show that I’m not setting up anything grand and serious, but am reflecting the playfulness of these times. 

Bright splashes of color permeate your images with selected elements – such as costumes and animals – being highlighted. What’s the reasoning behind this?


The bright colors were to indicate the idea of total fantasy against the heightened reality of this woman taking her hostage away. And color also adds humor to the pieces, certainly with the pig. People have really responded to that beast! My images are mostly very detailed pencil sketches and very delicately drawn, so color really adds several dimensions to the impact.


Do people resonate with your work in the way you think they will, or are you often surprised at their reactions?


I’m always surprised when people get upset or offended because that’s never what I intend. I like to provoke, and occasionally shock or disturb, but I never want to really upset anyone. At other times I’m amazed when the message gets across so successfully, because it can be something quite complicated or subtle that I’m trying to convey, not thinking that I’d ever succeed. It’s such a joy when someone gets it completely.

Do you consider yourself a feminist painter?


I would have to say that I am, but I think any intelligent working woman is surely a feminist, no? But that’s not my sole reason for being an artist, it just happens to come up quite a lot. What I really want is to empower all of the figures in my images, be they women, men, baby or families. All of my portraits have this really direct gaze and I want them to be in charge of the fact that they’re in the picture. That’s really important to me, that they have autonomy.


What kind of thing can we expect from Kirsty Whiten next?


Well we’re going post-apocalypse next. We’re going men, women and children - survivors, post-history, and post-boundaries. My partner is working on his second album - making some post-apocalyptic disco - so we’ve really influencing each other right now and working on ideas for this ‘after-society’ kind of thing – where there’s something more essential as the foundation for human relationships. I’m really looking forward to exploring this further.


More on Kirsty Whiten at www.flickr.com/photos/kirstywhiten 


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