by Maria Porges
Art viewers in the Bay Area have had far too little exposure to Los Angeles sculptor Pae White's diverse, materially rich, conceptually challenging work. White, 56, has produced a succession of projects that hover between art and craft, theory and practice. Her work is ever-changing, but nature and close observation of ordinary objects are consistent sources of inspiration. Presented in one large gallery, as part of the museum's ongoing "Beta Space" series, the exhibition offers viewers the opportunity to savor the range of White’s inquiries.
The space is dominated by foreverago (2017), a mesmerizing tapestry 127 feet long by eight feet tall. It bisects the room diagonally in deep, sinuous switchbacks, reminiscent of a mountain trail or a meandering stream. The work's colorful, intricately patterned fabric was woven from digital files on a jacquard loom in Belgium, using software that randomly distributes patterns. These consist of an abundance of ladybugs, dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets, as well as various psychoactive plants: mushrooms, poppies and marijuana leaves. These images are interspersed with other patterns borrowed from Japanese kimono fabrics and Byzantine icons.
This continuous field of texture and color, accessible from front and back, enables viewers to duck into one of the pockets created by the deep curves. The experience is simultaneously soothing and overwhelming, as you are surrounded by a proliferation of what White calls "bugz
+ drugs” — rendered in cotton, cashmere and gleaming metallic thread. Quirky color combinations like pink and dark blue on burnt sienna emerge and then disappear into fields of silver or gold. The overall experience is as much kinesthetic as it is visual. Meaning, that moving along and through the piece is crucial to understanding and appreciating it. White's large installations — some of which have filled spaces many times larger than this — seem calculated to create this kind of pleasurable discovery.
Agamemnonics (2013) is so large that, were it not located in the same gallery as foreverago, it would be the star of the show. It consists of a 30-foot-long case filled with a dizzying proliferation of objects identified as chess pieces whose number appears vastly enlarged by the mirrored surfaces on which they rest. All are based on a group of 1920s wooden toys the artist observed in the design collections of the MAK Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Intrigued by these anonymously created toys, she put together an imaginary nine-piece chess set, based on the novel idea that all the pieces would be equal in value. She sent images to artisans and fabricators across the globe and instructed them to create their own versions out of glass, wood, clay, porcelain plastic or rubber.
Though the results differ markedly, all bear a resemblance to the nine original forms White saw in Vienna. Their diversity suggests that she embraces chance, as few instructions accompanied
the images sent to the fabricators. Her decision to choose these humble wooden toys from the museum's collection—rather than, say, exquisite objects designed by famous Vienna Secessionists like Josef Hoffman or Adolph Loos—indicates her interest in foregrounding the overlooked, ephemeral or undervalued.
White has also experimented with large-scaled mobiles. Often, these cloud-like configurations of many tiny elements suggest natural phenomena like schools of fish or flocks of birds – even a flurry of brush marks in a vast dimensional painting. Whistleblower (2019), for example, consists of more than 3,000 pieces of laser-cut electroplated steel. Filling a corner of the gallery, its colorful pieces simultaneously reflect diamond-shaped bits of light on the ceiling and cast shadows on the wall, multiplying the already large number of shapes. Tsrembling in the air currents, the piece embodies White's ideal of creating “portable chaos.”
If the mobiles straddle art and design, White's "tapestry paintings" oscillate between art and craft. These large works on panel are created through a complicated process that relies in part on atmospheric conditions to produce their visible effects. Colored ink is applied first, followed by a layer of intricately patterned white "paper-clay" (clay with paper pulp or fiber added to it), through which the ink gradually wicks. The amount of color that rises to the
surface depends on humidity and temperature. The result, seen in The Storyteller, The Hostess and The Fluffer (all 2019), resembles a hormonally enhanced, pastel-stained chenille bedspread. Of all the works on view, these seem to most clearly manifest the artist's desire "to subvert the viewer's expected relationship to an everyday object, nudging them off balance, encouraging a deeper look."
Is there a through-line in these diverse projects? If there is, it resides in White's willingness to embrace chance. From the software that randomized the elements seen in foreverago, to the range of interpretations enabled by the "chess set," to the unpredictable results seen in the paper-clay paintings – it’s clear that White welcomes uncertainty. Her ethos of risk-taking and experimentation seems just right for a museum located in the heart of Silicon Valley.
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Beta Space: Pae White @ San Jose Museum of Art through January 19, 2010.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as a professor at California College of the Arts.