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The concept of “white” has many meanings: purity, virginity, and innocence. It refers to issues of race, of right and wrong, of life and death. White is also a tabula rasa, a source of energy for a new beginning. In a fit of utopian spirit, Kasmir Malevich painted white on white pictures in 1917–18, an exploration of the color that has snowballed in recent decades in the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, and Agnes Martin, among others.
White Matter(s), a group exhibition at NURTUREart in Williamsburg, attempts to engage white as a primary element in contemporary art. Ranging from poetic to austere to mysterious, the recent work by fourteen young and established artists in a variety of media—painting, sculpture, photography, work on paper, and video—presents a well-rounded display. Organized by Rose Merola as part of the gallery’s Emerging Curators Program, the show doesn’t tackle large issues of whiteness as subject matter—the artists use white more as a color choice than an integral part of their work’s content, but the exhibition does offer some new thoughts on this theme.
Alexandra Newmark’s sculpture Propagator, an odd, four-legged, multiuddered creature covered in off-white mohair, squats in the center of the gallery. The grotesqueness of the beast, which is neither arachnid nor insect, alludes to childhood fears, but is diffused through the motherly handicraft of its making.
While more tan than white, Grimanesa Amoros’s Snow and Grass, six small rectangles of encaustic and beeswax on handmade paper mounted on birch plywood, resembles icy patches of frozen snow on a hard, flattened meadow. The dead of winter eventually yields to thawing spring, and Amoros’s pieces are thoughtful meditations on rebirth, regeneration, and the passage of time.
Several works reference modernist serial practices. For Untitled (Punctuation: Looking Backward), Heidi Neilson hole-punched the last few characters and ending punctuation marks from sentences in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887. Arranged in a rectangular grid in the shape of page, the holes suggest a strong ending, as if the book has closed with utopian dreams of a perfect society. Although Bradley Campbell’s untitled wall relief may look like a diminutive version of a 1960s Minimalist sculpture, this plaster construction emphasizes the play of light and shadow across its squared forms—much more spiritual and contemplative than industrial or rational.
Bum Joo-Jean is the only participant who investigates weighty issues of whiteness, but he does so with the didactic simplicity of an art-school project. For his video Minority Report, the artist enlarged a well-known 1957 photograph of a black girl walking to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, harassed by white classmates. Joo-Jean stood inside Grand Central Terminal behind the cutout, with his face peering from a removed section of the girl’s face, while a partner documented people’s reaction on video. However, his Coca-Cola, a plastered, upturned soda can that has spilled a bloodlike substance, nicely demonstrates how monolithic corporations often whitewash the consequence of their ruthless capitalist practices.
In Love’s Fortune Elizabeth Knowles cuts out heart shapes from e-mail printouts, letters, and astrological charts that are sewn together; the hearts fall to the floor, and the papers drape like a doily over a table. While beautifully showing the longing and absence of modern romance, this work, like several others in White Matter(s), expresses only a tenuous connection to the exhibition’s theme.
It would be easy to say that White Matter(s) is grand in theory, yet falls short in execution. But such a claim denies the strength of the individual artworks, which explore the color more perceptually than conceptually. The viewer comes away with a refreshed view of white to fill a new blank slate.