Coming to America at Shrine marks Billy White’s well-deserved inaugural solo exhibition in New York, offering an exuberant selection of recent work; the paintings and sculptures currently on view dynamically illustrate White’s definitive creative focus and sustained capacity for fearless reinvention. For over twenty years, White’s portraits have directly reflected his enduring personal fascinations and artistic influences, through numerous iterations of specific personalities borrowed from popular culture and art history.
Throughout this exhibition, the joy and wonder White finds through art-making is obvious and infectious. He slowly and deliberately applies idiosyncratic strokes of vibrant acrylic, rendering loose forms with a striking physicality and disarming sincerity. These paintings exhibit an easy confidence and sense of humor similar to that of Katherine Bradford’s swimmers; less concerned with accuracy, White is instead intent on capturing the essence of his subjects in a bright palette redolent of his primary creative inspiration, Van Gogh (who appears in two remarkably different portrayals here). Robust figures are surrounded by imperfect, densely layered fields of color (predominantly in bold blues and greens). Abundant are motifs that frequently recur in his work - hyperbolic bicep muscles and facial features, gesticulating elastic limbs, and a variety of hats. Untitled works, such as a straight-faced, bug-eyed character wearing a fez or female in profile with prominent red lips, leave identities anonymous, whereas Fred Flintstone’s iconic black-spotted orange tunic and blue tie are immediately recognizable.
Also included are a pair of ceramic figures typical of White’s expansive body of sculptural work, whose uninhibited mark-making and commingling red and black glazes echo painterly gestures of the works on canvas. These, as always, provide incredibly satisfying evidentiary impressions left behind during the hand-building process - the dimpled crown and rippled brim of a knock-kneed cowboy’s hat, for instance, have clearly been formed by White pressing the clay between his fingertips.
In the exhibition statement for Figures at South Willard, Celia Lesh (who worked directly with White at NIAD) lends fantastic insight into his ceramic studio process:
Vincent van Gogh becomes Peter Sellers who becomes Redd Foxx who becomes Billy himself. Little Richard and Richard Pryor are married into a single body whose portrait is titled “Little Richard Pryor”. Sculptures of his father wear a hat that is WC Field’s, Yosemite Sam’s, and/or Jed Clampett’s. Identities are both specific and fluid, and exist in a sort of pantheon where the historic, celebrated, anonymous, and personal share a landscape.
When White explains the significance behind each work he does so carefully, with the animated tone and unhurried pace of intuitive invention. As he spontaneously narrates, the stories unexpectedly shift and his counter-intuitive priorities are revealed, but an abundance of detail gives these anecdotes credibility. While working on a painting of Jed Clampett White asserts, “Oil. Not coming from his pocket, not coming from his shirt, not coming from his hat, not coming from his mouth, but coming from the ground…that he lives on.” He gradually offers bits of information (that Jed Clampett keeps money hidden underneath his hat or This Man Right Here Owns Gold, who also hides gold under his hat, is actually a detective in disguise), further illuminating the magical, narrative complexity of the work.
Discussing the concept of creating something new which has this credible sense of history, Philip Guston once remarked:
I would like to think a picture is finished when it feels not new but old. As if its forms had lived a long time in you, even though until it appears you did not know what it would look like. It’s the looker, not the maker who is so hungry for the new. The new can take care of itself. Every new idea that I have now or get about painting seems to follow from the daily work: from an infighting in painting itself, in the confusion of painting. What can be talked about? It seems that the possible subject is in fact impossible to discuss. As you paint, changing and destroying, nothing can be assumed. You remove continually what you cannot vouch for or are not yet ready to accept. Until a certain moment.
From this perspective, one of the most compelling aspects of Billy White’s paintings is his ability to draw pop culture into the realm of what he’s willing to vouch for and accept in this sense, something Guston never would have pursued - giving novelty, tradition, and timelessness to characters with well known histories of their own (such as Van Gogh, Fred Flintstone, or Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem Joffer here, as he has done previously for Jed Clampett, Hulk Hogan, Richard Pryor, and Redd Foxx). White abstracts certain qualities of these figures from their source narratives, while subordinating them to the process of seeking magic through painting; the result is a generation of new meanings that possess mystifying relationships to both the unknown and the familiar.
Coming to America continues at Shrine in NYC through September 9th. Artstanda "Billy" White (born 1962) has maintained a studio practice at NIAD in Richmond, CA since 1994. White has exhibited extensively at NIAD and previously in Figures organized by Celia Lesh at South Willard in LA, Storytellers organized by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz at LAND in Brooklyn, Affinity organized by Tim Buckwalter at the Museum of Northern California Art, and Adult Swim organized by Gerasimos Floratos at Pillar Corrias Gallery in London.