Museum-goers may have noticed the large, brightly colored sculptures that have recently sprung up in the gardens of the BYU Museum of Art. They are the work of artist and BYU alum Michael Whiting. The exhibition, michael whiting: 8-bit modern, opened this past June, and on September 20, Michael Whiting returned to BYU to speak about his work at a lecture cosponsored by the BYU Studio Areas of the Department of Visual Arts and the MOA.
His lecture covered a variety of topics, including his aesthetic origins, his career trajectory, and his creative process.
The roots of Whiting’s artistic voice emerged while living in New York. As a student at the Pratt Institute, he created an MFA show of steel-canvas paintings.
“No one liked the paintings,” Whiting related. “But they did like the steel canvas”
Knowing what to do with the materials came later and was sparked by a trip to the New York Museum of Modern Art.
“When I walked in, there’s a painting right there. You don’t have any context.” Without any obvious clues, Whiting thought he saw “something that was talking about 80s video gaming. [I was] thinking flashing lights and Pac Man.”
In fact, it was Piet Modrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, painted nearly forty years before Pac-Man existed.
“That was the experience I had: I misread a painting, but at the same time, I started thinking about this,” said Whiting.
As that connection between 8-bit video games and minimalism took root, Whiting was still developing into his current focus on sculpture.
In one of his early shows, a reviewer was critical about his artist’s statement in which Whiting called his works “paintings.” Said the reviewer, “Being creative is essential to any artist, but technically speaking, these painted steel constructions are obviously sculptures.”
From that review, Whiting concluded, “Maybe I need to hit them over the head a little harder,” and began to allow his sculptures to develop into the more representational forms they do today.
Speaking of that evolution, Whiting explained, “Every project you do builds upon the last project. Every experience you’ve had somehow comes out in what you do and what you say. And I think that that’s really the best way to come up with ideas.”
Over the course of his career, Whiting has found success in both public and gallery settings. Speaking of these differing venues, Whiting explained, “Even though the stuff I’m building looks similar in both instances, it’s a completely different experience and it’s a completely different set of people. You put something in a public space and the people that encounter it aren’t people that came there specifically to see your object. . . . Whenever you see something in a gallery, you’re expecting it to be art.”
When artist Michael Whiting got the opportunity to put on a show at the BYU Museum of Art he was thrilled. “Having gone to school here,” Whiting related, “the idea of doing a show at the museum: I was over the moon, really excited, and really wanted to go all out.”
Whiting also explained specifically how he creates his giant, pixelated sculptures:
“When I draw, I don’t draw in a sketchbook: I actually go on my computer to Paint, I blow it up 800%, and I just start drawing one pixel at a time.” He creates pages and pages of sketches that start out complicated, but he works hard to reduce them “until it gets a lot more simple, so you get the basic idea but [they’re] not so representational.”
After he finds a sketch that satisfies him, he takes it into a 3D modeling program, in which he can get more specific about the sculptures physical dimensions and create mockups. He then builds the sculptures himself using mostly a welder, a grinder, a welding table, and a crane and with occasional help from friends and family.
Whiting concluded the question and answer session with some words of wisdom for aspiring artists: “I started thinking about what I saw and what I liked. I wanted to make something that I liked rather than sounded good in an MFA thesis. I think that makes anything easier. When you’re interested in it, you can really pursue that.”
Listen to Michael Whiting’s lecture here: