Turns out I'm not the only person puzzled by the murky source of David Whittaker's particular genius. In a performance review at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) a few years back, an instructor described the quiet artist's work as "disturbingly, if not alarmingly, impressive," noting that his labor revealed a sensibility that is "over-familiar with the dark, a kind of dreamy, quasi-sadistic peculiarity that made it both memorable and worrisome."
Sounds about right. Even Whittaker himself, a 27-year-old Massachusetts native who arrived in Houston this spring by way of New Orleans, is at a loss to explain the impetus for his clay creatures, which tend to look like they were plucked from the mind of a Tim Burton fan on mushrooms. His most intriguing characters are eerily connected to run-down man-made structures, their plump, wrinkled bodies resembling some cross between a drug-addled California Raisin and a mentally deficient Mr. Potato Head doll. Their effect, as Whittaker points out, is "grotesque, yet cute," creating a tension that pulls the viewer inward as it simultaneously repels.
"I've always been interested in oddities and things that were a little bit off," he says. "My characters are all ugly but they have great charm."
I ask him what sort of sculptures are forthcoming. He thinks for a second, then points to a couple of fist-size clay heads laying nearby.
"I think I want to turn one of those heads into a fish," he says.