Active for over fifty years on the Canadian art scene, Irene F. Whittome has long made the museum—its tools, systems, and functions—the centre of her creative process. The gestures of classification and identification, and a concern for preservation and accumulation are characteristic of her installations and display cases, which are veritable little cabinets of curiosities. Her works present an opportunity to explore the museum as a site, not so much to uncover its blind spots, but to bring its imagination into play, using its rooms, languages, and sacralising strategies to tell stories infused with personal mythologies.
After moving to the Eastern Townships in 2007, Whittome built a studio and homestead on a former quarry, where she now channels her desire to transform the environments that inhabit her. It is there that, in 2009, she performed the act of burning the templates and leftover elements of many of her works from the 1970s and 1980s. Among these were encaustic-covered wooden and cardboard objects from her series Vancouver (1975-1980), an installation that was exhibited and reconfigured numerous times, hence the presence of shipping crates among the flames, visible in the photo documentation of the event. With this iconoclastic gesture—of the order of a spectacular and unproductive expenditure obliterating several years’ worth of work—Whittome freed herself of its weight and gave herself a symbolic blank slate. The fire, which burned for an entire day, allowed her to physically inscribe her presence in the quarry: nine burial mounds of ash and debris were arranged on the site of the blaze, like memorial markers. Two years passed before the traces of wax embedded in the soil had finally dissolved and been replaced by patches of resilient lichen.
Destruction and rebirth: two opposing states that unite to evoke the process of sublimation. In conversation with Whittome, this idea often returns, like a leitmotif, and she pinpoints it as a key element of her artistic impulse. She has never been afraid of destruction, sublimation’s first stage whose finality is a state which, by substituting itself for the former, suppresses it. Fire—ceremonial, funerary, an offering—is also an apt reminder of the ritualistic and sacred nature of her entire practice. This is evidenced in her use of symbols such as the turtle, the cross, or the stupa, and the meditative atmosphere of some of her installations that use light and the tension between dissimulation and revelation to produce a sense of mystery. Her series Linceul 1, 2, and 3 shows traces left by a liquid as it moves across and soaks a piece of linen. These cerements reconnect with Whittome’s first love, printmaking, which involves transferring a design from one surface to another. Created with an iodine dye, a liquid with antiseptic properties, these works are like shrouds—fabric that wraps the bodies of the deceased—in that they intimately evoke rites of passage aimed at preserving and celebrating life. A life carried on in remembrance, in life’s traces, and perhaps even beyond and before it, in sublimated form.
Irene F. Whittome was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1942. She has taught at Concordia University in Montreal from 1968 to 2007. She was a Masters Program associate since 1975 and became full professor in 1995.
She lives and works in Montreal and Ogden, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Between 1995 and 2000, her works are the subject of four solo exhibitions in an institutional context: at the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal (CIAC) (1995), the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1997), the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1998), and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (2000). In 2001, she begins to work in the Stanstead area to create Conversation Adru, presented at the Art Gallery of Bishop’s University (now Foreman Art Gallery) (2004). In 2003, she purchases a disused granite quarry in Ogden, in which she constructs a studio and works beginning in 2004.
Irene F. Whittome has received many awards for artistic excellence, including the Victor-Martyn-Lynch-Staunton Award from the Canada Council of the Arts (1991), the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, Toronto (1992), the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas from the Government of Quebec (1997), and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2002). In 2005, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her works are in the collections of Canada’s major museums. Since 2005, she has been represented by Galerie Simon Blais in Montreal.
Image in the banner:
© Irene F. Whittome, Prelude to Shroud, 2021. Photo: Tom Montgomery.