White contains all wavelengths of visible light, and in turn humans have deposited within it our multitudes of meanings, reflecting opposing and essential facets of human experience. The artists included in Subversive White, on exhibit at Lisa Sette Gallery, March 2nd - April 27th, 2019, pull at the veil of whiteness to reveal the phantasms within: false notions of ethnicity and biology; “purity” as a cover for complicity; the persistent menace of erasure.
Subversive White, presented in the sun-washed white chambers of Lisa Sette Gallery’s modernist building, touches on the tendency of white to imply both beauty and menace. Figurative works in the show take aim at the apocrypha of genetics and culture, while conceptual works negotiate the presumed opacity of white and its ability to cover or obscure.
The artists featured include Enrique Chagoya, Sonya Clark, Claudio Dicochea, Ben Durham, Angela Ellsworth, Rob Kinmonth, Carrie Marill, Trina McKillen, Mark Mitchell, Ann Morton, Fiona Pardington, Ato Ribeiro, Julianne Swartz, and Hank Willis Thomas.
Ben Durham’s Chain-link Fence Portrait (John) presents a mugshot executed in delicate undulations of handwritten text on alabaster paper, the composition contorted by an underlay of steel fence—a life shaped by bondage and incarceration. The portrait is of a childhood acquaintance of the artist whose mugshot is now in public domain. Durham remarks “Whiteness in painting and drawing is not neutral or a blank slate but always for me an absence, a record of what we can or cannot see. The question of who deserves visibility and attention and what attentions are valued and facilitated by our culture is at the center of my ongoing inquiry into memory, representation, and the criminal justice system.”
Hank Willis Thomas’ lenticular work, Le Blanc Imite Le Noir, requires that its viewers alter their location and vantage point in order to fully perceive the work, as the image shifts and the text changes. The piece is simple at first glance—black text on a white background. Yet no single view grants access to the sum of the composition; its simplicity is a riddle, and the message contained within and projecting from its white lenses is in a constant state of flux.
Many artists address the history of whiteness as a premise for present exploration. Fiona Pardington’s Phrenology Head, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital, Paris 2011 (With thanks Musée de l’Homme (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle), Paris) is a striking portrait of an obsolete phrenological bust, its cranium methodically gouged and segmented; the work speaks elegantly of generations of racist psuedoscience.
Rob Kinmonth’s eerie, intriguing image of George Washington’s dentures, Mount Vernon, Virginia are similarly representative: the dentures—a tortured and weathered shade of ivory, screwed into a brass structure—are conjectured to have been partially made from teeth pulled from the mouths of slaves on Washington’s plantation. Remarks Kinmonth, “Washington left us his political philosophy and a system of government…and over the years Americans have used Washington to fill in the blanks of their own motivations, both good and evil.”
Addressing more recent history, Mark Mitchell’s Cracker Party delivers a bomb wrapped in silk and sweetly embroidered with a braided silk fuse, reminiscent of white communion and bridal dresses. The work, says Mitchell, is “a tribute sculpture to the George Jackson Brigade, an intersectional armed resistance group of the late 60’s and early 70’s active in the Pacific Northwest. They were comprised of two gay ex-cons, two lesbians, a sex worker and a Black Panther. I made this bomb to celebrate their legacy.”
From the insistent protuberance pushing beneath the surface of Julianne Swartz’s Stretch Drawing (Thick Jut) to the altered perspective in Carrie Marrill’s pale still-life The Gaze, white becomes a method of resistance and a cipher; a place where meanings may turn radically below the surface. In the Proof Reading series, Ann Morton’s embroidered handkerchiefs include a disclaimer: a careful inspection will reveal the false claims of whiteness permeating our current conversation, from the bleached dentition of so-called leaders.
Throughout the exhibit, white reemerges as a purifying flash of light and heat, a conflagration with the potential to reveal and irradiate noxious premises of white supremacy currently permeating our national dialogue.