by Derek Conrad Murray and Soraya Murray
Encountering Cate White's exhibition at Mills College Art Museum — part of a two-person show titled 2019 Art + Process + Ideas — one is immediately struck by the sprawl and variety of the copious offerings on view. White's offerings include mostly paintings done in acrylic, latex, spray paint and glitter, as well as several sculptures, a multi-channel video and an installation. The exhibition materials characterize her work as a "mid-life reckoning – a fundamental reassessment of values, identity, purpose and meaning" – all of which comes through resoundingly in two dozen works, all made in 2018 and 2019. Though they are disparate in form, a consistent and palpable air of unease and strategic coarseness prevails.
With its jumble of abject figures, rainbows, drugs, animals and affirmations, White's grid of 44 small drawings on paper, Untitled, feels like a mind map of liberal angst over the inhumanities of advanced capitalism. En masse, these works create a concentrated psychological tension that skips between themes of pharmaceuticals, toxic masculinity, brutality, cheap advertising and outsider art. As a distinctly Bay Area artist, White's work reflects an anti-establishment spirit made popular in the 1990s by Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee and other so-called "Beautiful Losers" associated with the Mission School. Stylistically, her work is also in dialogue with Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor’s intentionally naïve style .
Though there’s much to see, it’s the paintings that are this exhibition’s main attractions. Birthday Girls depicts five kids in bathing suits standing behind a pink–decorated table with a large cake, and a large kitchen knife. Lit from below, the girls' faces are disturbing, and on closer inspection, we see why: out of the icing, painted to look like waves, rises a shark’s fin. The effect is ominous, and together, with the ghoulishly lit, zombie-eyed girl pictured in Goldilocks, it captures the horror looming around young girls' lives. Cul de Sac Girl emanates a much different spirit. In it, a young black girl with pink shoes displays a fancy dress. A wobbly text bubble with the word "what" issues from her mouth. She stands on a patch of grass, getting soaked by sprinklers hitting her from all sides. A colony of earthworms wriggles onto the sidewalk in the foreground, while another child plays in the yard. In the distance, a man with his back turned seems oblivious to the frolicking. While the girl is sweet, and the room feels more suburban, the worms lend a rotting air to the whole scene. Rory Dana Jr. in Memoriam registers a strong impression of a moment captured. In this, a black man in a trucker cap and a child in a tracksuit huddle close to a fish tank propped up on cinder blocks. The youth looks out at the viewer, grinning. Patterns of oranges and browns decorate the edges of the work, the interior of which shows a room decorated in a 1970s style, with a floral-patterned couch, shag carpeting, loud brown wallpaper and wood paneling – all of which serve as signposts of class.
Some of the best works in the exhibition contain images of African Americans, though they certainly don't constitute the majority of those pictured. There are many white figures throughout – and what tends to unify the work is acute class consciousness. These are working and lower-class people, marginalized individuals caught in similar existences and whose lives intersect across racial lines.
Here, it bears mentioning that the artist has been called to task for rendering black figures—or more specifically, for doing so as a white painter. She addresses these concerns in a written statement that begins with a question: "What does this white girl think she's doing?" It's a provocative query, but it accurately articulates the tensions surrounding the artist's work.
The sensitivities brought to bear around White’s images are not without merit. It is true that people of African descent in the U.S. have endured misrepresentations, caricatures, and erasure from the visual realm—not to mention that their image has often been the sole domain of a white-dominated culture industry historically invested in maintaining the marginalization of black people. On the other hand, in the twenty-first century, the image of black deprivation and struggle has become a product that many cultural producers attempt to cash in on: ultimately intensifying feelings of black ownership, territoriality and protectiveness.
This was recently exemplified in the melee over white artist Dana Schutz's painting Open Casket (a recreation of the notorious photograph of the slain Emmett Till) which caused a stir during the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. But these sentiments do not mean the black figure cannot be envisioned by others. In fact, such representations are badly needed. African-Americans did not create anti-black racism in the U.S., and therefore, it is not exclusively their problem to solve. White Americans must discuss it openly and honestly and without phony sentiment and political correctness. The notion that painting the black body is off-limits to white artists (or any artist for that matter) is both bullying and deeply disturbing. These representations must be undertaken, but they also need to be handled responsibly, and with care and respect. The conversation engendered by White's images is a much-needed one, even if it ignites sensitivities in some viewers.
Take, for example, a painting called The Problem in which White paints a young black mother wheeling a stroller down a street. Her toddler leans out and flips a middle finger to a red-faced white man who leers from a yellow Hummer. The artist interrupts this ugly interaction by inserting a dark abstract wash between the woman and the ogling driver. It acts like a force field, protecting her from his gaze. Painted in a raw style, the work is an image of self-possession, a gesture of self-protection. The painting also seems eerily in dialog with Norman Rockwell's social realist work The Problem We All Live With (1963), a civil rights-era image of a young black girl being escorted by four U.S. Marshals toward a desegregated school. Behind her, the word "nigger" is scrawled on a wall splattered with tomatoes. It begs the question: What problem? Is the problem the black girl who is unwanted in a white neighborhood, or the racism that bears down upon her? Should Rockwell have refrained from picturing a black child amid racist brutality and hatred?
Perhaps the more significant point is that an image of a black subject isn't fetishistic and exploitive simply because a white artist produced it, nor would it be inherently non-exploitative if a black artist had made it. This is crucial if we are to truly look at artworks, letting them speak, as opposed to interpreting them solely through the unreliable lens of our own racial baggage. Missing in the critique of White is the fact that race is not, ultimately, her dominant theme. Yet in the current climate, she feels obligated to defend herself for portraying black figures — regardless of the tenor of the work. Reading The Problem alongside other paintings that White has made of white male subjects, like The Farmer's Daughters or Leisure, opens up different interpretations that have more to do with finding flickers of humanity and dignity in the wretched tackiness of everyday American culture.
What these debates tell us is that we must honestly contemplate the social role that blackness plays within a complex cultural landscape and not indulge in essentialist positions. On the other hand, it would be deeply troubling if we all retreated into our respective identities and communities—representing only those who look like us while ignoring the myriad ways in which our lives intersect and our stories mingle. Work like Cate White’s is needed if we are to ever move beyond the ideological divisions that continue to divide us.
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"2019 Art + Process + Ideas Exhibition: Cate White to Sept 1, 2019 @ Mills College Art Museum. The show also includes works by Constance Hockaday. Both were artists-in-residence at Mills during the past academic year.
Cover image: "Birthday Girls" (detail), 2019, acrylic, latex, spray paint, glitter on canvas, 50 X 56 inches.
About the authors:
Derek Conrad Murray is an interdisciplinary theorist specializing in the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art and visual culture. Murray works in contemporary aesthetic and cultural theory with a particular attention to technocultural engagements with identity and representation. He is currently a professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights (2016) and the forthcoming book Mapplethorpe and the Flower: Radical Sexuality and the Limits of Control (2019).
Soraya Murray is an interdisciplinary scholar of contemporary visual culture, with a particular interest in art, film, and video games. An Associate Professor in the Film + Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, her writings are published in Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, CTheory, Public Art Review, Third Text, Film Quarterly, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art and Critical Inquiry. Murray’s book, On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris, 2018), considers video games from a visual culture perspective, examining how they are deeply entangled with contemporary political, cultural and economic conflicts.