Wendy White Interview
|Interviewed by Arthur Peña.|
Wendy White | Pix Vää
| Wendy White’s work alludes to the human imprint on the city. Artifacts discovered on her own expeditions are recorded, and transformed. Sculptural references to urban life are seen in the application of store front signage and awnings which frame traces of human inhabitation – White’s painterly marks. Wendy catches up with Curbs & Stoops contributor, Arthur Peña to chat about her new Fotobild series and her relationship with the city. The Fotobilds will be showing at her solo exhibition, Pix Vää at Leo Koenig Gallery in New York.|
Wendy White | Pix Vää opens Thursday, September 13, 6-8 PM at 545 West 23rd Street.
Arthur Pena: I know that previously in your work, building the frame or stretchers was important to you. now that some of that process is outsourced, what kind of relationship do you think this brings to the object on your end?
Wendy White: It was a big conceptual hurdle dealing with a fabricated element at first, but they already feel assimilated. I’m still making the canvases that the awnings are paired with, and of course painting them. For a while now I’ve considered a large part of my work to be about speed, and a fabricated element vs. painted element really extenuates that conflict. I’ve carefully orchestrated a balance between digital print and paint on canvas.
The strange thing is, when I first made the 3-stripe paintings, everyone thought I was farming them out because the wooden parts looked machined, but they were all hand constructed by me alone in my studio. With the Fotobilds, I knew that I wanted to integrate photography, and it made sense to use a real sign manufacturer since the subject matter is image and architecture. I took all the photos and manipulated them in Photoshop. They’re digitally printed but the frames themselves are welded and roped by hand, so the end result is still very personal, even if it is more of a collaboration.
AP: I really dig this outlook on the work. With your previous work, I saw your construction of the object, the building of the whole, as your way into work that was made in a hands-off way. Or I should say, presented to appear hands-off. This is in reference to the airbrush and a direct negation of ‘gesture.’ But is there “gesture” in this new work? Or are the photographs/Fotobilds the next step in the removal of your hand? The outsourced aspect could definitely point to this.
WW: A hands-off “look” was never intentional. There’s a fine line between good craftsmanship and slickness. My stuff always has evidence of the work that’s been done, so jpegs never really do me justice. I don’t sit around thinking about gesture, but I will admit that painting as a singular discipline isn’t my thing. I think of the Fotobilds as the logical next step toward a hybrid experience: painting + sculpture smashed together with buildings and streets, how it feels walking around a massive city, urban ghosts, forgotten architecture, new signs. Basically there needed to be another surface, one that I couldn’t make with painting materials, something more rooted in the urban/universal.
AP: I think it’s interesting that you mention how jpegs are functioning with the reading of your (and at this point, most peoples) work and how an audience can experience the viewing of your work. You’re right. Viewing work though jpegs is limiting, in a sense. I think this can relate to how your environment, NYC, operates as a character in your work. I remember watching Goodfellas for the first time as a kid in TX and thinking “Who are these people? Where is this happening?” The detachment of those experiences kept me at a distance from the movie. You mention “massive city, urban ghosts, forgotten architecture, new signs” and of course none of these are NYC specific but as much as this is a silly question to ask, I’m gonna ask it anyway: Could this work have been made if you were in Omaha? Do you think the universal is attainable?
WW: I guess I mean universal as in “of the world” as opposed to “of the art world.” I was spending hours pouring over the NYC municipal photo archives. I felt compelled to look at photos of real places. Art materials by themselves felt fictional. There is something infinitely profound to me about walking down a street that millions walk every day, and have walked every day for hundreds of years, then opening a door (maybe a shitty graffiti covered door, maybe a new door with handprints on the glass, either way everything everywhere in NYC has marks on it) to go into a private residence, or a restaurant – something about street level started to seem utterly important to me. We physically interact with the city’s surfaces – exteriors of buildings, bridges – primarily on street level. Everything above is so clean and intact, but only because we can’t reach it to fuck it up.
There’s no way could I make this work in Omaha (nothing against Omaha. I’ve been there and it’s cool, but I function better in urban spaces). I can’t even work in a studio with a wood floor. I feel like I’m in someone’s living room.
AP: Tell me about it! That “infinitely profound” feeling you describe is what I get when I look at the moon. I think, “That’s the same damn moon the dinosaurs looked at? WTF!” Silly I know but these things (NY streets or the moon) speak to an inherited history, embedded stories within our environment. How is the story of 11 Oliver different from the story of 197 Madison?
WW: 11 Oliver is a residential building on one of the only intact blocks in my neighborhood in Chinatown. Most of the area was torn down in the early 1930s to build my apartment complex, and in the 1960s to build the Arthur E. Smith Houses, which Robert Moses spearheaded. Outside 11 Oliver, someone built a metal wall to hide a row of garbage cans on the street. The wall constantly gets tagged and they constantly repaint it with the wrong color. I have a bunch of photos of different iterations of painting on that wall. I really liked that an unseemly wall built to hide garbage cans became an unlikely surface for painting, both the tagging and the splotchy repairs. 197 Madison is a bodega next to the East Broadway stop on the F train. It has one of those huge food picture signs that every bodega has, but this one is installed right at street level, and right at the top of the subway steps. It gets trashed. It’s dirty, torn, disgusting – but they still sell a lot of sandwiches there and they don’t replace it.
AP: I’m aware of your love for Warhol but spending some time with friends this weekend and talking about your work I found myself referencing Rauschenberg to talk about your Fotobilds. Of course our boy Bob coined the term “Combines” and his work definitely reflected the term and I think the directness that is in your work reflects the directness in your term “Fotobilds.” Can you talk about the brainstorming session that happened in developing/inventing the word that functions as the umbrella for this new work?
WW: I thought a lot about Rauschenberg while making the Fotobilds – his use of photography and how/when photos dominate/integrate with other materials, and the flatness/depth of field paradox of photography. The thing about Rauschenberg’s and Warhol’s work that constantly inspires me is that, when you see it in person, you see real art objects. That sounds dumb but it’s everything. I always spend time in the skull painting room at the Warhol Museum just to remind myself that the balance between control and spontaneous, visible “hand” is key. An imperfect corner, a stretcher pulling out from the wall a little. Despite all that history has bestowed on them, those works of art are palpably human, and it’s not because of some picture on the surface – it’s a result of how the materials themselves were put together.
As for the series title, I knew I wanted it to include the word foto. I also wanted to reflect the process a bit, to point to the fact that the works are three dimensional objects. “Bild” means “image” in German but in English immediately makes one think of “build” or “to construct.” So the combo of foto and bild seemed perfect because it refers to two things that are two-dimensional while subconsciously (at least to an English speaker), suggesting sculpture.
AP: The word play is really interesting. It seems like you enjoy these games within your work and inviting the viewer to participate. Whether this is by searching the object for recognizable forms (letters/words) or especially with the Fotobilds; finding the specific reference points out in the world (like a destination for art geeks. Finding 11 Oliver in NYC and saying “Wendy was here”). Are there rules or “games” that you follow/play while making the work? Certain approaches that must always be considered. Has the new work forced you to reconsider rules that may have previously served as a structure for making?
WW: I have zero rules!
AP: I hear ya loud and clear. But I want to revisit the question because I think that the work does not necessarily expect but does offer participation from the audience. What do you think about the idea of someone seeing the work and then coming across these specific locations out in the city and recognizing that? This makes me think of the ideas that were talked about with early video work and the question, “Where does the actual work exist?” Also, you mentioned earlier about you going through the municipal photo archives; do you see these works in line with an idea of public record/archive?
WW: I didn’t set out to make it a game at all, but someone could totally go on a scavenger hunt for the locations. They’re all real places. And I do spend a lot of time looking at old photos of New York City. Maybe documentary photographs are the most important records we have. Real stuff with real people staring back at you. I don’t know. I wanted to do that bit of doubt justice somehow, by using both photography and painting in the work. The painting parts become the human element – like exhaust trails from trucks, dried gum splotches on the sidewalk – the stuff that is the byproduct of human intervention. Then the awnings are straight-up signs, so essentially it’s the architecture vs. ruin conundrum. What’s more valid, the architect’s narcissistic tower or the worn down, nostalgia-laden remnant?
AP: There is something noble about you addressing the doubts that can be discussed within the notion of our histories, whether its architecture, human waste or an idea of the image. What do you think will be our lasting documentation?
WW: I have no idea. It was definitely a genius move keeping those cave paintings out of natural light. But honestly, I’m so much more interested in change than the indelible. I don’t just pour through old city photos, I want to see the current state of places. You know, all that stuff about figuring out how and where we fit in. One of the things I’ve been doing is photographing doors on the LES. I’ve made a series of paintings that rely on the photographs to loosely determine the text, composition, scale relationships, and palette. A door is such an iconic object – a portal – but it’s also just a piece of wood or metal between the street and all your shit. Almost every door down here is marked or tagged or littered with three or four different address iterations. Those get covered up and new ones crop up days later. It’s different than typical graffiti because it is done in the most intrusive place possible – the thing standing between you and your living or working space.
Right: Wendy White, 47 Market, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, acrylic sheet, shatter balls.
AP: It’s really fascinating the way you talk about the city. All of the nuances that you are able to pull out of a place that is constantly telling you to “get out of the way”. How you’re able to extract specific moments that you then bring back to the studio. What do these moments, when you are able to slow down and just look, mean to you? Do you find yourself looking more while out in the city or while in the studio?
WW: I never feel like New York is telling me to get out of the way. I’m not a domestic studio type, so maybe that’s why the fast pace and grittiness works for me. I keep my workspace very industrial, no couch or bookshelves or coffee maker. I have one old folding chair. I can’t make good work with nice stuff around. I think maybe I feed off discomfort! Either way, the palpable energy and historical legacy of New York is worth a little hassle now and then.