Art, it has been said (for better or worse), is about solving problems in unique and interesting — and, one hopes, moving — ways. Predicaments arise, and artists like Pae White deal with them in a manner that makes you smile, cry, throw punches in the air, miss your grandmother, hate Big Brother, all while leaving you flushed and stumbling around with a huge question-mark bubble over your head. Take, for instance, White’s current exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Filling the massive foyer are several of the artist’s multihued showers of colored chips — an intense visual made all the more intense by being accented with surreal birdcages and a handful of painted-wall details.
The Hammer foyer is about as tough a room as it gets for an artist. Essentially, it’s a huge white cavern, with stairs and doors and walkways and fire-marshal concerns, that opens out onto the high-rise bleakness of the Wilshire corridor; one wrong move, and your art is invisible. It’s a space that’s a long way from precious or elegant, one that White has wrestled into a kind of color-field docility thanks to her prudent dappling of the resplendent chips.
“I would compare her favorably to Martha Stewart, whom I regard as a genius,” says art critic David Pagel, lounging over a gritty cup of French roast in his Beachwood Canyon back yard. “You could put Pae anywhere or give her anything, and in eight hours I believe that she could turn it into something amazing. She’s got a great eye. For a long time that was looked upon as maybe a bad thing in the art world, but thankfully that’s not the case these days. I think the same could be said of Donald Judd as well. He had a lot of Stewart in him too.”
Martha Stewart? Minimalist art titan Donald Judd, the control-freak crafter of the entire art hamlet of Marfa, Texas? Pretty fast company to be included in when speaking of overall visual aesthetics, but Pae White’s relatively young body of work has already manifested itself in such myriad ways that, who knows, maybe the comparisons will bear out over the long haul. A few highlights: the cat-whisker pieces from the early ’90s that I still can’t — even after several people have tried to explain them to me — wrap my brain around; the sex toys coated in that rubbery plastic you see on pliers handles, etc.; also, there are the necklaces/bracelets made of the names of all of the people she slept with that are spelled out in jewelry in a semianonymous way and pinned on the walls — which, by the way, predate Brit kiss-and-tell artist Tracy Emin; add to that the hanging mobilelike pieces at the Hammer as well as the spider-web drawings; the paper clocks based on the signs of the zodiac that contain portraits of like-signed friends; reflecting pools made from layers of glue-melted Plexi-panels that cast off textural, holographic images when lit; birdcages with birds fashioned from cut-out paper snakeskin, and other ephemera; the barbecues she cast in animal shapes; the books, the design work (a sculptural collaboration with architect husband Tom Marble at the Wilshire/Western Metro rapid-transit bus stop, and a new bus-interior make-over that debuted a week ago — more to follow?), not to mention the chandeliers . . . You get the point. While many artists these days are toiling feverishly to establish a trademark (read: brandable) iconic, one-note style, White’s opted to go the opposite way, steadily building a diverse arsenal of delivery systems through which she can pump her intriguingly fluid and elusive vision.
The mobilelike pieces at the Hammer — which the museum specifically requested from White — give one the sense of having dropped just the right amount of peyote seconds before stumbling upon a Technicolor meteor shower that would have Dorothy crooning her lungs out back in her Kansas pied-à-terre. They’re real crowd pleasers, which can become a challenge for an artist who’s interested in continued growth.
“The hanging pieces aren’t exactly my favorite,” White said recently, curled up next to a space heater in the backroom of her Highland Park studio. “I needed a disruption. Without some sort of tension, you just kind of have these beautiful things hanging there and, basically, they become invisible.”
To create the desired “disruption,” White added those bizarre birdcages, as well as the aforementioned “wall details” that she creates by guiding ink with compressed air directly across the surface of the gallery wall and which look almost like veiny lightning bolts.
“The birdcages were something that I was working on as sort of an overlap to this show,” White says, rubbing her hands together to stay warm. “Originally, they were bigger and more structural pieces, but they weren’t quite working for this show. I like it when I can incorporate something new into a show, and then there exists this potential, a risk for a total disaster. With the Hammer, I definitely saw this show as an opportunity to experiment. The wall details are new as well. Shows are sort of parentheses of things that are going on in the studio. An opportunity to elaborate on things I’m thinking about. Like a testing ground.”
Brian Butler, who runs the Los Angeles project space 1301PE and who has worked with White for years, sees her method as a means of approaching the infinite and the unknown with a set of “tools” capable of handling whatever issues might arise: “Pae views the world as a place where everything is possible, and in a way she has found very fixed possibilities [her varied techniques], which kind of keep increasing a little bit and which she uses to fit the needs for any given particular time and place.”
It’s a kind of honed fluidity that separates her from so much of what’s passing for art lately: repetitive imagery pounded into our mind’s eyes in the hope that the viewer will at least walk away remembering the brand. “Pae’s willing to disappear into her work,” adds Pagel, “to become what John Baldessari called an artist who was ‘beyond the studio,’ no longer bound to the canvas, but out in the world and responding to situations.”
Like the situation that occurred last year with a show at Richard Telles Fine Art on Beverly. A chandelier White had manufactured in Mexico showed up in a thousand little pieces and without the necessary wiring. For many, it would have been a catastrophe, and White definitely took pause, but, ultimately, she gathered herself and responded, choosing to showcase the chandelier as a luxuriously sprawled mess in the corner of the gallery.
“Pae makes decisions on the spot,” says Richard Telles, recalling the event. “And she has a great capacity for improvisation. The result was wonderful. It [the show] really turned out beautifully. Installation is something that I think is extremely important for artists, and it’s one of her strong points.”
The unknown and/or the unaccountable are often evoked with fondness in conversations with White. When I mention how the hanging pieces at the Hammer had created these wonderful monster-snowflake shadows on the floor and how initially, in fact, it had been the shadows that had drawn me to the piece, the artist breaks into a grin. “Yeah, those shadows were a complete surprise. I hadn’t ever built one of those pieces around a fixed light before, so I had no idea that would happen. It’s a great example of how what appeared initially to be a limitation ended up being a total bonus.”