Remember that guy in high school who was always drawing? You always wanted to sit in the row next to him so you could peek over during class to see what he was scrawling there, hiding the paper with an arm so the teacher couldn’t see what he was up to. I have a feeling that Jason Whitman was one of those guys.
Whitman’s 25 or so pencil drawings currently at Rebus Works in Raleigh still show something of that album-cover, adolescent hand, featuring painstakingly shaded animals under various degrees of ironic duress, but through their seriality he’s developed a more critical mischief.
Almost every drawing fits into one series or another. Putting the titles of the drawings in this review is really a bit of a spoiler, as it’s the moment that you lean in close to Whitman’s work to read the title, written in tiny fullcaps, that you really see the piece. Whitman has developed a vocabulary of drawing-title relationships that spark more often than they fizzle.
Whitman’s prominent motif is to place an animal’s head and shoulders upon a human’s skeleton. Although the animals are drawn with great shading and detail, the skeleton is rendered in a cartoony outline verging on bubble-letters. He even has finger puppets of some of these, for the child in your family who disses Disney for Tim Burton.
Some of Whitman’s titles pun off the animals too simply—a disgruntled sea turtle scowls out of “Shell of Your Former Self.” But when he pairs two animals in one drawing, the implied conversation works better. A retriever turns its head to a chimpanzee in “So Now What?” A lynx and rabbit stand awkwardly beside each other in “True Love Will Find You In the End.” Whitman’s earnest hand and clear stylization denies any sense of simple gore. You don’t imagine a stripped-away animal body somewhere. The animals themselves seem unperturbed at the absences of their bodies.
In the “Breathing Exercise” series, animals in profile emit multicolored curled shapes from their mouths. Something between a wordless voice bubble and a watercolor paisley, the shapes seem like an essence is betraying or fleeing these stoic rats, rabbits, and squirrels.
A more interesting and vaguely environmental series involves animals again in full-body profile with little landscape scenes on their backs. In “If You Know You’re History,” a buffalo with flowers coming out of its back is literally pushing up daisies. A tired-looking deer bears a mini Manhattan in “I Think This Is Where I Get Off.” The ferret toting a dead forest in “I Know What I Did Was Wrong” expresses an ambivalence between guilt and accusation.
The coolest piece in the show is a standalone drawing that perhaps represents a new direction for Whitman. “Don’t You Take Anything Seriously?” is a mélange of elements and characteristics that trusts the viewer to look closely enough at the image to discern Whitman’s mischief without a title to point it out. There’s a striped animal body with a foxtail, hoofed back feet, and cat-paw front feet. Atop its head is a long swoosh structure that goes up to a crowned and beatifically smiling cloud, glimmering with sparkle lines.
This drawing is goofy and creepy all at the same time. It made me want to buy a football franchise and use it as my logo, just to see burly guys with it on the sides of their helmets. If this is where Whitman is going, then we should follow along.