Brooklyn Whelan, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic on stretched canvas, 91 x 91cm
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Like a conversation entered into between two unwilling strangers, Brooklyn Whelan always comes back to the weather.

More specifically, clouds. The Sydney-based artist has spent the past three years exploring seemingly endless permutations of his signature cloudscapes rendered in vivid shades of pastel blue hues, burnt oranges, neon pinks and charcoal greys. In Whelan’s hands, crepuscular scenes familiar to anyone who has gazed skyward at sunset are suddenly made alien, shot through with unfamiliar objects or distorted through an abstraction of scale and scope.

“They just came to me [when] I was starting to experiment,” Whelan tells GRAZIA of those early experiments with painterly cloud watching. “I’ve always liked clouds and storm fronts, and I’ve always been that kid standing in the face of an oncoming storm. It must have been a subconscious thing that just has always been laying dormant and one day [it] came to the front and appeared.”

A significant amount of time spent as an art director for Tracks, the surfing magazine, also helped Whelan cultivate an eye for colour and composition. After six years, however, he says he ran out of ladders to climb in publishing and, from there, the only way was up. For the past two and a half years, Whelan has pursued his art practice on a full-time basis, and though appearances might suggest otherwise, the artist does not spend his days cloud watching or waiting for the storm to roll in. Instead, he chases it, and he’ll follow it wherever it’s going to take him.

Holding Pattern A, 2017, Acrylic on stretched canvas, 110 x 110cm
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

From his home studio in the seaside suburb of Clovelly, Whelan has “a great view of the ocean”. He paints predominantly during daylight hours using natural light, keeping the regimented hours of a regular office day – albeit under vastly different conditions. Though his subject matter might suggest otherwise, the size of his canvasses dictates that he cannot work en plein air. As such, Whelan’s cloudscapes stem not from close renderings of the meteorological patterns of the world outside his studio walls but from those brewing within his head, arising “from a conscious point of view rather than just plain sight”.

Whelan frequently invokes the science fiction canon when it comes to listing the disparate influences that have shaped his internal cloudscapes. It’s clearly discerned in the commingling of organic, otherworldly shapes with a hyper-saturated colour scheme that favours neon pink at one end of the spectrum and vast swathes of cosmic black on the other. He cites the tempestuous skies of Flash Gordon and the gaseous cloud planets of the original Star Wars films as being amongst some of his formative influences; likewise, “the neons and bright colours of the 1980s, and that kind of fantasy, sci-fi B-grade movie vibe.”

Blade Runner, a film foremost amongst the most enduring works of that decade, is another cultural touchstone that continues to shape Whelan’s output (you only need to look at Raf Simons’ Spring 2018 menswear collection, and Denis Villeneuve’s impending sequel for signs of its evergreen cultural cache). Whelan adds that its iconic soundtrack, composed by Vangelis with synthetic mastery, also shaped his view of a world in (and beyond) the clouds.

The artist Brooklyn Whelan, pictured in his studio
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The graffiti movement of the 1980s also proved to have an indelible impact on a young Whelan, who as a child spent days drawing at his family table alongside his father (who, as it turns out, also dabbled in painting). Beat Street, the 1984 dance film set in the world of New York City’s hip hop, breakdancing and graffiti culture of the same era, provided an initial introduction to the scene, but it was firsthand exposure to street art gained through the windows of the train he caught to and from school in Sydney’s west that gave him a segue into that scene in his later high school years and those immediately following it.

These days, however, Whelan has taken his work indoors, swapping aerosol for (primarily) acrylic on canvas, though a spirit of his former practice remains in its freehand application and abstractionist tendencies. An autodidact who says he “pretty much failed art history at high school” due to an overriding interest in the practical, Whelan is today represented locally by China Heights and by Nelly Duff in London where, he says, a great deal of his original commissions come from.

“It’s funny that London seems to be a place that’s really accepting of my work.” I venture that perhaps, owing to their notoriously dreary skies, Londoners enjoy the feeling of escapism that his work inspires. He concurs, adding while laughing that “Apparently, a fun fact is London people hold the highest percentage rate of selfies without smiles [because] they’re super miserable!”

All Clear Highs A, 2017, Acrylic on stretched canvas, 110 x 110cm
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Whelan himself is by no means immune from Seasonal Affective Disorder, his mood having as much bearing on his composition as the music he’s listening to. At the moment, Run The Jewels are providing the soundtrack for his studio – their brand of rap-as-an-act-of-resistance sitting seemingly at odds with Whelan’s largely placid celestial cloudscapes. It turns out, however, that Whelan’s work at music are a natural pairing, at least in another sense. In collaboration with Samsung, the artist has created something akin to a virtual reality exhibition to be staged at this year’s Splendour in the Grass, commencing July 20. It will be his first experience of the festival, held annually in the scenic North Byron Bay Parklands.

“It’s something that I’ve had in my mind to do for quite a while. I always figured how amazing it’d be to fly through your own paintings or neon cloudscapes,” he says. And while Whelan – who has been enlisted as one of the Samsung’s #ToTheMakers class of creatives, can’t be drawn on further details – it sounds as though it will be quite “a trip, that’s for sure.” There will also be an exhibition of his work in an onsite gallery which, when combined with the VR experience, will be the largest project Whelan has worked on to date.

“I don’t think there are any limitations”, Whelan says of the challenges he faces through his practice, as well as through projects like this that require he step outside of his comfort zone and into unfamiliar landscapes. “I think it’s just [about] pushing your work and producing good work, and there shouldn’t be really any limitations whatsoever. I’m constantly thinking ahead also. That’s one thing I guess, being an artist. You’ve got to always be in front of your own game.” Onwards and upwards.

Brooklyn Whelan’s collaboration with Samsung can be viewed at Splendour in the Grass each day until 8pm from July 20 until July 23.

Tile and cover image: Heavy Roller, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 101 x 101 cm/Courtesy of the artist