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The MCA’s Ken Whisson: As If, curated jointly with Heide Museum of Modern Art, was one of the major exhibitions in Sydney’s galleries this Spring. I had an association with the exhibition, contributing an interview to the catalogue, so this is not intended as an impartial critique but a reflection on a theme that has come up in a few conversations about the exhibition. Among those I talked to, the response to the work was overwhelmingly positive. The word ‘consistency’ came up quite a few times from different people. Whisson is a consistent artist, they said; the work is consistent. Funnily enough, the more dismissive responses I heard pointed to what might be the same feature, but saw it as a problem: they said the idiom is narrow, limited by a fixed attitude to medium and process. This led me to wonder what we are praising when we point to an artist’s consistency, what we are criticising when we speak of repetitiousness, and whether the distinction between the two lies largely in the eye of the beholder.

Taken at face value the word consistency, as it pertains to a retrospective exhibition, would seem to indicate a high level of achievement sustained by an artist over a lifetime. I think those who said Whisson’s work is consistent meant this, but there are finer distinctions to be made within that broad statement. Firstly, there is consistency of quality, consisting in each of the works being strong in its own right. Glenn Barkley, MCA curator, commented that in curating the show he did not come across a bad Whisson, a comment I expect would send a chill down many artists’ spines. Creative artists fail regularly and surely all artists have done a number of bad ones. But artists redeem themselves through their capacity to determine when they have failed and their willingness to remove those works from circulation. The consistent artist does not necessarily produce an excellent performance every time they enter the studio, but they do perform at that level fairly regularly and make sure the poor performances don’t see the light of day.

December 2012  
December 2012  

Art Tribes of Sydney