'Remembering Glen Whittaker' lets viewers look at artist's many layers

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 8:14 p.m.

When Glen Whittaker died Feb. 16 at the age of 62, he left his Oakland studio full of paintings, constructions, designs and art materials.

Now, thanks to the efforts of his longtime companion, Marcy Pitts, much of his work is on display at Mendelson Gallery in Shadyside in the exhibit “Remembering Glen Whittaker: A Memorial Retrospective.”

Pitts, who has known Steve Mendelson since childhood days shared in McKeesport, asked the gallery owner to showcase Whittaker's work in memoriam, even though Mendelson only exhibited a few of the artist's paintings once before in a group show many years ago.

“I liked the work. I respected the work. But it was very complex and expensive and I wasn't sure that I could sell it,” Mendelson says of his early efforts to promote Whittaker's art.

Having an intricate and complicated style of his own that included layers of symbolic outlines, hidden images and brilliant colors, Whittaker meant for his art to be thought-provoking. Case in point: one of the largest pieces in the show, “Confluent.”

“That's a very complex, very interesting painting,” Mendelson says of the picture, which is based on Pittsburgh's three rivers. “There are things going on in it on all sorts of levels. There is so much detail and layer upon layer of things. There's newspaper print in the background, there is a dead Indian and a pool of blood at the Point. You can see that he worked very hard on it.”

Pitts says that was the artist's modus operandi: “He would work on a picture for a very long time.” In fact, ever since moving to Pittsburgh in 1999, “He only made about 10 or 12 pictures while he was here,” she says.

Whittaker was born in Philadelphia and attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied religion. He settled in Manhasset Bay, Long Island, but eventually made his way to Pittsburgh in 1999 at Pitts' urging. The two had met in 1987 while Pitts was visiting her sister in Great Neck, Long Island, and maintained a long-distance friendship. Upon moving to Pittsburgh, Whitakker moved into Pitts' Forest Hills home, and, a few years later, set up a studio in Oakland.

Pitts says one cannot simply glance at a Glen Whittaker painting and understand it; you have to “look beneath the surface.”

“If you look at his work, you can see how detailed it is,” she says.

Although he usually used the best materials, Whittaker also would incorporate brown paper bags, strips of newspaper, Elmer's glue and other materials in an effort to build up the surface of his pictures, overlaying new designs and vivid colors. “No picture he ever made was totally complete,” Pitts says. “There was always room for improvement.”

Perhaps Whittaker's self-portrait says this best. Here you see the image of the artist as a boy, overlaid with multiple outlined images of Whittaker at different stages of his life.

Earlier works such as “Cyclops” and “My Lily Pond,” completed when the artist lived in New York, are just as multilayered and detailed.

Also on display is a photograph of a painted dinosaur from DinoMite Days, the 2003 fundraiser for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Whittaker was one of the artists who painted fiberglass dinosaurs for the fundraiser, which were displayed citywide.

Titled “Cogitatio Aeterna” (meaning eternal reflection), Whittaker and Pitts called it “Codgie” for short.

“Glen deliberately made Codgie mysterious and thought-provoking,” Pitts says. “He applied stenciled question marks all over the body then hid them under layers of other symbols including yellow lightbulb drawings.”

Underlying everything else was Whittaker's drawing of a “thinker.” “Glen wrote that his mission in making his dinosaur was to address questions about links people have with other life-forms on Earth,” Pitts says. “He wanted onlookers to be able to see themselves in his dinosaur and to think about their connectedness to it.”

Pitts wants visitors to this exhibit to know that, as an artist, Whittaker was “the real deal.”

“That's what he said he overheard one art student say to another about him when he was checking out at the Utrecht store where he was a frequent customer,” she says. “When asked to describe the kind of art he created, he firmly stated, ‘I make serious art!'

“Anyone who sees his art would have to agree,” she says.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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