Whiting Tennis, Mastodon, 2010, acrylic & collage on canvas, 44” x 73” x 5”, collection of Grady West, Seattle, Washington.
Tennis constructs his narrative from images and objects that suggest discarded or used-up buildings and animals. It reflects a vision of contemporary America as a place where lonely figures roam a landscape of timeworn or abandoned buildings and where the overlooked is beautiful. Many of his images and forms, including the zoomorphic (those that take on animal attributes), the anthropomorphic (those that take on human attributes), and the architectural, are derived from small automatic drawings or doodles. He fills sketchbooks with quick drawings—some abstract, some vaguely figurative—and uses these as starting points for larger, more complex pieces like Mastodon.
Whiting Tennis, White Nun, 2006; lumber, plywood, paint and asphalt; 67.5” x 25” x 27”; courtesy of the artist and the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, Washington.
Whiting Tennis, Washer and Dryer, 2009, plywood and house paint, 40.5” x 28” x 24.25”, courtesy of the artist and the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, Washington; photo credit: Robert Wade.
Faux painting and trompe l’oeil are used in a variety of ways in Tennis’s work. The artworks made using these techniques blur the lines between reality and illusion as well as between representation and abstraction by appearing to be real objects, meanwhile tricking the viewer. Tennis has created a number of paintings and sculptures that appear to be genuine found objects, but that are actually fabricated artworks, such as Blue Tarp (2007), Washer and Dryer (2009).
Washer and Dryer was exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2011. It was installed in an intentionally haphazard manner, suggesting that it had been abandoned, as real appliances in our throwaway society may be dumped in a yard or left in a vacant lot. At the same time, however, this work maintains its own formal presence as essentially two white cubes, suggestive of Minimalist sculpture. Both the work and its siting bring up the question of how to determine what is art and how beauty is defined, reinforcing Tennis’s view that beauty can be found in the overlooked and commonplace.
Whiting Tennis, Skipper, 2013, acrylic on panel, 24” x 18”, courtesy of the artist and the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, Washington.
Tennis often uses small automatic drawings or doodles as a starting point for his works. Automatic drawing is often associated with early- and mid-twentieth-century modernist movements like Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This manner of working calls for drawings and marks to be made without consideration, and allows imagery to emerge freely from the artist’s subconscious. Tennis embraces this approach as a means of generating ideas for some of his artworks.
Whiting Tennis, Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda, 2009, mixed media, 44” x 72”, collection of Charles and Amanda Kitchings, Los Angeles, California.
Tennis is open about his creative process and several of his artworks emphasize that process. Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda (2009) is a wall sculpture that features 108 sculptured maquettes. In this piece, Tennis presents a large group of ideas that he has considered for sculptures. As the title suggests, some of these small, three-dimensional sketches were developed into larger sculptures.
Whiting Tennis, Bitter Lake Compound, 2008, Acrylic and collage on canvas, 6’ x 14’, Collection of the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon 2008.62.
Tennis also creates artworks that depict structures that may be either invented dwellings or specific buildings. In Bitter Lake Compound (2008), Tennis created a collage that depicts the backyard of a house in his Seattle neighborhood. In this piece, he turns what could be seen as an eyesore or junkyard into a beautiful array of rhythms, textures, colors, and marks on a heroic scale: the piece is fourteen feet long.
Tennis’s dilapidated and quirky structures play an important role in providing a sense of place for his art. While both figures and buildings sometimes merge as one in a singular form, they seldom appear separately in the same artwork. These individual dwellings can be seen as both settings for the world that his figures populate as well as buildings with personalities all their own.