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Jeff Whipple: the tale of a man and his museum

TAMPA

The Jeff Whipple Art Museum is a good idea.

I was dubious when the Tampa-based artist and playwright announced its opening about a month ago. It seemed presumptuous.

Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol, he isn't.

That's probably the most compelling argument in favor of it.

Where else can a minor artist like Whipple show his work on such a comprehensive level than in his own space? "Minor" is not meant as a pejorative. Whipple, 50, is a very fine painter and draftsman, well known in the Tampa Bay area and in a few other communities, but he has no ongoing national presence and seems never to have aspired much to one. History teaches us that acclaim in one's lifetime isn't always a measure of merit in the long run so — who knows? — today's Whipple could be the next century's Van Gogh.

Hallmarks of a 'true' museum

But without a crystal ball, I focus on the present and JWAM, the offbeat acronym Whipple uses for the museum. There is a lot of art packed into the 5,000-square-foot building next to Centro Ybor, at least 200 paintings and drawings along with a few sculptures and one video monitor. The space is a former retail emporium, with minimal changes except temporary walls Whipple built to create galleries.

As museum experiences go, this one conforms in some but not all ways to our expectations of a fine art museum. It has "didactics," those labels with biographical and aesthetic information intended to establish context and encourage deeper readings. It charges admission ($5).

Like all true museums, the works are not for sale (though Whipple says he would be willing to discuss a sale with an interested collector, which is very unlike a museum).

The light from windows is unmitigated as is that from the industrial overheads, and the space has no humidity control system, all de rigueur elements in museums, institutions with a primary directive to preserve and protect art. Since Whipple owns the art, its conservation is his business. JWAM has no affiliation with state or national museum organizations and its unpaid staff is Whipple and some friends. It's open only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Becoming Whipple

So maybe you're thinking the museum should be called a gallery. Or an exhibition space.

Anybody can call anything a museum, and Whipple's claim is more valid than many. Its presentation of Whipple's work is far less polished than his 2005 retrospective at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art and without the objective eye that curator Mark Ormond provided.

What it has is unfiltered truthfulness. Whipple wants to show us the long path to maturation as an artist, the detours that might be mistakes but can also be breakthroughs that eventually lead in a fruitful new direction.

From his earliest years, he was a storyteller. When he began formal training and favored a representational style, he had to swim against the strong currents of abstraction and pop art that were the predilections in most university art departments in the 1970s. (Whipple attended Northern Illinois University for his BFA and the University of South Florida for his MFA.)

Work from those days is like a lot of student art, earnest and all over the place, as well as showing emerging consistencies. He was interested in objects not as symbols, which probably would have taken him in a surrealist direction, but as metaphors, which could give layers of meaning while still staying grounded in a real context. In other words, he was searching for a language that would let him stay literal.

The background patterns that are now hallmarks, often isolating images from each other on his canvases, seem to begin with a series of paintings from the mid 1970s that used a checkerboard pattern to swathe his subjects. He also used hands to cover faces, another device that he returns to through the decades.

Whipple has said that early on he admired the early 20th century modernist Max Beckmann, who also painted in an unfashionable figurative style. He did a lot of self-portraits and so does Whipple, probably at first because it was easier and cheaper than persuading someone to sit for him.

On another level

Those portraits have evolved into characters, along with many other people he paints into his canvases, involved in domestic scenarios that are often both disturbing and funny. Men and women tussle playfully with each other or meet in confrontational faceoffs. In the former is a hint of physical violence; in the latter is exaggeration that mutes its hostility. Domestic Discussion, for example, portrays a couple holding power tools and clinking coffee mugs while they stare each other down. One of his legs has been removed by her power saw; she's spouting blood from his drill. It could have been grisly; instead it's laconic.

Whipple believes in the social responsibility of art, so there are many polemical paintings dealing with current events. The most interesting are discourse; when he drifts into tirade mode the results are sincere but heavy-handed, the visual puns too obvious. American Thrill Rides from 1985 is a case in point, with two children in a Tilt-a-Whirl juxtaposed with military helicopters.

A group he calls Post Modern Heroes from the early 1990s in its own gallery area is still among my favorites by the artist. In them he updates the heroic ideal from classical art and literature. Not really satire or spoof, these characters ask to be taken seriously as they serve hot dogs and hamburgers like sacrificial offerings, emerging from mountains of food as victors rather than victims. They have survived consumer battles intact and proud but with shredded clothing.

The patterns become more refined over time, replacing any specific references to place, resolved now into three squiggly lines that inevitably are compared to Keith Haring's emulations of primitive markings. Whipple has created a recent collection that puts these spasms, as he has named them, in the forefront. They, instead of hands, obscure faces. They're meant to represent the movement and life of human existence in between what Whipple considers a great void. And they look odd, part protective armor, part defacement.

Decide for yourself

That has been the thing about so much of Whipple's art from the beginning. You know it all means something; you're not always sure what. I think he has cultivated that sort of confusion and uncertainty. It's challenging and interesting, at its best stretching the viewer to make connections.

The Whipple Museum would probably be better understood in Europe, which has a long tradition of single-artist museums, more than 400 at last count and not all about famous artists. There are fewer than 50 in the United States. That disparity can probably be explained in large part by economics. Government funding is far greater in Europe for museums. Private funding, the main way our museums stay afloat, is especially difficult to raise for single-artist museums. The highly successful Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg gets most of its income from gift shop and ticket sales, not donations.

Comparing it with an established museum like the Dali is silly. It doesn't even pretend to any permanence. Whipple is there until its owner can find a higher-paying tenant. When he can, Whipple will be gone.

It's a cool idea while it lasts, probably one that many artists wish they could realize.

As Brice Marden, a famous contemporary artist said, "If you have your own museum, when you end up dead you're still in control." I deeply doubt Whipple's demise for many decades so it's not so much a question of legacy at this point as of control. No one else to decide what gets shown and what doesn't. No one else to share wall space with.

Museum? Who's to say. What it is called seems less important than what it does. Visit and decide for yourself.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

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Jeff Whipple

Art Museum

The museum is at Seventh Avenue and 16th Street in Ybor City. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission, $5; www.thejwam.com.

Jeff Whipple: the tale of a man and his museum 04/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 26, 2008 4:31am]

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