Brett Whitacre’s ‘Hearts and Helicopters’ at Kortman

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117571341618335.jpg’, ‘Photo of artwork by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Is it being plugged in—or unplugged? Titled “Male/Female,” Brett Whitacre explores today’s sexuality and our electronic obsessions. ‘);

Brett Whitacre’s paintings carry a fresh look in his current exhibition at Kortman Gallery.

Creating his figurative imagery with a complex style of stencils and spray paint, Whitacre works on the back side of old storm windows. This technique means he must paint from front to back, cutting complex stencils from masking tape to create his simply-designed paintings. The glass support and spray paint leave him with perfectly flat, supremely glossy surfaces. The limitations of his stencil method makes great design imperative, and creates simplified imagery that reads as very contemporary.

My favorite painting is “Red Rider,” a woman with the feel of a 1960s-style hairdo and dress. Her face is tucked into the top of the painting among a complex web of shapes ranging in color from a solid, juicy red through the maroons and on to black.

Glossy, rich and vibrant, the piece is as satisfying as it is interesting. But these paintings are “framed” in cracked, peeling window frames. In some of the works, these distressed edges feel incongruous to the rich gloss that is so important in carrying the paintings.

“The Bowler,” though, fits its discarded window perfectly. It shows someone with an afro bowling in retro-colored pants with an orange ball. Positioned over a starburst crack in the pane of glass, the bowler emerges from a background of an oversized circuit board.

The painting, consequently, has much to say about where we have been and where we are going in our recreational habits.

I don’t know how I feel about artists using recycled materials anymore. Recycled materials allow free surfaces for experimentation without the cost of a canvas inhibiting the artist’s ideas. They fit with the popular interest in recycling. But artists, always at the fore, have been recycling for years. This is not a new—or even recent—development. Is it axiomatic that art needs to develop new ideas and techniques to continue to progress?

Brett Whitacre does take recycling materials to a new and exciting level in his most innovative work—his televisions. They alone are worth a trip up the stairs of Kortman Gallery. Old, portable TVs are treated with his stencils, then spray-painted. Then, (guess what?) the tape is removed, the TV is plugged in and turned on. What you see is a flickering, usually black and white image, showing through his image. One TV is sprayed gold and shows a cord with a plug and a wall receptacle. Is it being plugged in—or unplugged? Titled “Male/Female,” Whitacre explores today’s sexuality and our electronic obsessions.

A purple television (these all have two knobs, remember them?) shows colored programming peeking through the stencil imagery of another TV. There is something mind-bending when a television can “talk” about the history of television and not say a word.

Finally, in two especially retro paintings, we remember the days when men wore suits and packed guns, bullets and ticking alarm clocks in their suitcases. The woman’s suitcase has perfume and lotions, and is still neatly packed and untouched by security. The good old days?

Then, Whitacre paints on actual suitcases. He paints robins so they don’t have to fly all that way north. He paints a 1970s boom box on a Samsonite in this age of iPods and cars that shake from their monster speakers, and his signature television shows up on a third suitcase. In fact, more of these show up on display at the airport. Fun.

This exhibit continues through April 17 in the Kortman Gallery, upstairs at J.R. Kortman Center for Design, 107 N. Main St., Rockford.

Susan Webb Tregay is an artist and author who will be leaving Rockford the end of April. Her new book and DVD, Master Disaster 5 Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors, are out and creating a buzz. She can be reached at 815-963-8260 or

from the April 4-10, 2007, issue

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