The 13 new paintings by Hayden White at Finch Lane Gallery challenge an audience and a community used to sharing broad assumptions with its indigenous circle of artists. By skillfully employing representational techniques, such as the behavior of light on materials and surfaces, White makes his work visually accessible, but does so to present subject matter that, in spite of its universal qualities, remains so culturally alien it might appear to come from outer space. Not that this seems to bother him: in fact, his mode of invention borrows from science fiction and science fact to produce the sort of ambivalent quality that emerged after the Second World War, when rockets, nuclear power, and flying saucers seized the public imagination, promising new wonders even as they threatened to put a premature end to life on Earth.
White fills his painted spaces with anthropomorphized spheres and an array of tubular forms that twist and intertwine, penetrating and emerging from each other’s orifices. Some viewers find this disturbingly suggestive, others just disturbing, but that may be only a small part of their power to upset complacency. One impression, that they escaped from an animated cartoon, is matched by another that they’re only paused in writhing motions that could resume any second.
The figures themselves strongly resemble cartoon characters, the simplest of which, seen as “plight,” recall the balloon animals created by circus clowns. However, they soon enough begin to undergo a series of evolutionary developments. In “split,” two of them form a symmetrical pair that, with the addition of a sphere for a head, become a humanoid body. The most characteristic quality, though, is the way the process of their creations continues in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable process, not unlike life itself. Larger forms sprout smaller version of themselves. What were pupils in the eyes on the left side of “blue knew” emerge as entire figures on the right, then becoming a tongue. Biology runs amok, with variously humorous, unsettling, or on closer examination, downright creepy effects.
None of this constitutes a departure from dozens more individual works shown on Instagram, which demonstrate that whatever White is up to, he’s been doing it for a long time. Whatever propels him to paint these tragicomic clusters of thematically repetitive, anthropomorphically suggestive variations seems to be in firm control of his considerable talent. There’s a certain impulse to call these figures “characters,”but like every other conclusion reached about them, each new discovery is soon overwhelmed by other, often contradictory visual facts. What initially seemed comic, even friendly, begins to feel less so, producing a cascade of anxiety, both observed in the work and felt by the viewer. Furthermore, there are no objective size cues, and any one of these presumably “life-sized” figures might just as well have blown away from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. As faces appear on unlikely shapes they become heads, but then their shadows also develop faces. As we’re finding out about the cyber world, the truth is nothing and no one is in control.
One theme White may be exploring is pareidolia, the name given to the universal human tendency to see patterns in random visual noise, leading in turn to all sorts of human characteristics being assigned to objects. Faces, like the ones in our electric outlets making surprised expressions with their open mouths, are among the more common discoveries … which is to say, illusions. On the other end of the phenomenon, pareidolia gives rise to all sorts of unsupported (and unsupportable) conspiracy theories. Recalling that White’s animated and expressive cartoon faces consist almost entirely of eyes and occasional mouths, which features are in reality no more than shapely holes in an empty form, does nothing for the art but can do a lot for its audience. Much of the tension throughout this work comes from this kind of uncertainty as images move from benign to threatening and back again: not just the capacity, but the tendency for one to change to the other as easily and often as light turns to shadow.
Like many artists, White is better at showing what concerns him than putting it in words. His statement isn’t incoherent, but neither is it easy to decipher. Then there’s this exhibition’s title, Apart Meant Three. “Apart,” can convey two mutually exclusive meanings. To be “a part” of the whole is a healthy, indeed a necessary condition in life, while to be “apart from” ones community is to be isolated and alone. Thus possible examples of “apart meant three” might include a new family, in which the child is apart from the marriage even as a parent is excluded from the bond between the other parent and the child. Or it could be a romantic triangle, where instead of a tripod, the most stable basic structure, the desire to form couples can topple the evident advantages for all three.
If there’s a moral to this story, it may be that the conventions and values that are accepted as given are not the essential truths they appear to be. On the other hand, it may be that without some limit, change can take on a life of its own. It’s OK to read meanings into art so long as no one insists a visual image can have only one. Using a minimum of means, Hayden White reveals a number of both basic and elaborate truths.
Hayden White: Apart Meant Three, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 4
All images courtesy the author