White is a place where many artists begin: a white piece of paper, a white gessoed canvas.
It can also be used as a radical gesture, as demonstrated by Kazimir Malevich with his 1918 painting "White on White." This white square painted on a white background marked a dramatic shift away from representation and perspective, testing what abstraction could achieve. In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg created his White Painting series, which in turn gave John Cage confidence to finally write his landmark composition "4:33" (often referred to as "the silent piece"). Also in the 1950s, Robert Ryman began painting with only white paint on various surfaces, a constraint that he continues to work with 60 years later and has not yet run out of variations and experimentations.
Whether intended or not, this rich artistic legacy and engagement with white is invoked through the choice of white as the theme for The White Show currently on view at Visual Art Exchange. The 35 works were selected by juror Rachel Herrick from submissions in response to the call from VAE. With a recent move to its new Martin Street location, VAE now has more space to fulfill its mission of providing exhibition opportunities to all artists, especially emerging artists.
The process-driven "Brown Shrimp/ Tide" by Jenny Eggleston and Matt Stromberg is The White Show's highlight. The worn, handmade-looking character of the work's white paper subtly demands attention. A rectangle of paper toward the work's center includes the text: "who will white wash clean anointed hands?" The focused looking that the reading of it requires leads to the perception of a faint drawing of a brown shrimp to the left of the words. Faded by the process of washing mentioned in the work's materials, the shrimp is nearly invisibile, a powerful suggestion about critical ecological issues and the under-recognized importance of the role shrimp play within their watery ecosystems.
Three photographers in the show draw upon snow as a natural source of white. The most successful is by W. Patrick Day in "Snow & Shadows." This close-range framing of a pristine snow-covered yard is contrasted with dark lines created by the branches of a bush and the shadows of a fence. The white snow leads us to see these lines as abstract shapes. Jay Yager's "Nymphenburger Strasse, Munich" shows a person from the back walking on a snowy sidewalk. To the left are snow-covered trees, to the right are reflections of the snow in the glass-walled building, conveying the sense that the figure is surrounded by white. Nick Lincon's "White Out A Here" has a strong composition—in the left corner a dalmatian jumps out of the snow-covered ground—but its slightly blurred resolution softens the crisp lines that would make it a powerful photograph.
White also takes on dimensional form in the show, most skillfully in the vellum transformed by Sarah Howes-Whitney in "Metamorphosis." This paper-covered wire armature hangs on a wall and also extends out from it, creating vortex-like shapes and lines that are full of energy. It conveys the sense of freezing a moment of movement, akin to shaking a sheet in the wind. Also rewardingly playful is Mz Julee Thomsen's "Gown of Cleanliness," a sleeveless short dress created from layers of off-white rubber gloves that functions as an elegant dress made of an unusual material, even though the color of the gloves look almost yellow amid the other white works. (This writer has no connection to the artist.)
Clay and porcelain both offer rich territory for white creations, but the show's lone ceramic work, "Untitled" by Laragh Covington, with its images of sharks and rhinestones, ventures into kitsch territory. Among the show's other less interesting uses of white are soaps, whitewashed windows, frayed pieces of canvas painted white and glued onto a larger canvas surface, and the use of white paint over layers of colorful paint. With the possibilities of white by no means exhausted, "The White Show" only offers a handful of compelling engagements with white.
Also on view in The Cube, a VAE space dedicated to experimental exhibitions and installations, is christian.ryan: pleasureware + speculative bodies. This selection of sculptures is accompanied by signs that encourage viewers to "connect play with touch." Participation is challenging in art when it is intentional. When paired with technology that does not always work—as was the case when I visited—the result can be alienating. If christian.ryan's work is about frustration, it succeeds. The nontechnological elements of sculptural gloves, tambourine fingers and fur-covered handles inside offer the only rewarding connections. Similarly, in "portcanhasaflavr v.0.4" the artist overestimates the viewer's desire to sample the candy melted by a nonworking motion sensor. Anyone who tastes it might wish they hadn't, since the sticky, not-quite-maple flavor lingers longer than needed.