Opening nights are good for first impressions—of galleries, of art and of course, people—but I wouldn’t finalize an opinion of a show immediately after the opening. Wendy White’s solo exhibition with Andrew Rafacz Gallery, entitled “FRENCH CUTS,” is an example of why this is true, and why going back to see the same work at a different time, in a different atmosphere, is crucial to forming a complete impression.
Friday, September 10th, was the big opening night for all of Chicago’s galleries as the fall art season began. I wrote about my first impressions of the exhibitions for ArtSlant, and noted for White’s exhibition that, “the irresistible urge to continue on drove me forward,” and out of the gallery before I’d spent enough time with the work. I revisited the gallery a week later and was able to spend much more time with the work, though for all the time I spent I could have spent much more. White’s work poses a complex puzzle that is enjoyable to struggle with.
Installation view of Wendy White's "FRENCH CUTS" at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Gallery One (West wall). 2010. Image courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
It has been two years since I’ve last seen White’s art in person (websites, and a notable appearance in Art in America notwithstanding) and in that time a major development has been the inclusion of text elements into the work. At first these texts were off-putting, it seems like I’ve missed about two or three stages of development on the way to the text pieces. When you’re familiar with an artist’s work you think you can expect it to progress in a certain way, I had expected that White would stay purely abstract. But it would be a terrible thing if artists stayed yoked to our expectations—Radiohead would have never made ok computer, Sol LeWitt would have only permutated squares, and Picasso would have stayed stuck in the Blue Period.
Studying the words and letters that White includes on her canvases seems more or less futile, and ultimately beside the point. That the words are in French immediately occludes their meaning to the largely English-speaking audience here (myself included) and moreover it’s unclear what the relations of the words to the titles are, if any, or even if the words themselves are sensible even in French.
Wendy White. Fond de Raquette. 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 84" x 97". Image courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
As an example, according to my own high school-level French and my French dictionaries, Collins Roberts French Dictionary (HarpersCollins: 2001) and Larousse Pocket Dictionary (Larousse: 1997), the title of the work Fond de Raquette (seen above, all works 2010) may mean “back of the racket,” as in a tennis racket. This seems to conflict with the words on the canvas, at the top is “especne,” as read left to right, with “de laO” at the bottom and reading right to left. “Especne” is one letter off of the French for “species” (“espèce”), but other than that it does not appear in any of my dictionaries or any online either. Of course this reading begs a reverse reading, “encepse,” but that word doesn’t appear to translate into anything either. The experience of trying to parse out these words is like something out of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, and I don’t think that’s a mere coincidence.
Attempts to determine the meaning of words and phrases fall by the wayside as one realizes the shakiness of the words themselves, and even further, that the letters are not always even fixed, in the above mentioned “de laO,” it could just be as well a zero as an O. This makes literal the structuralist and poststructuralist ideas and theories that revolve around word and meaning, word and sound, word and their constitutive letters, and all the slippages in between. The exhibition title, “FRENCH CUTS,” strikes me as a sly pun on these French theorists.
Trying to squeeze meaning out of the words and letters ignores a more salient aspect: their function as formal devices. White keeps a steady eye on the flatness of her work; the only exception to the flatness is a protruding foam soccer ball that humorously draws attention to its rupture. The letters she makes are all emphatically flat, appearing to have been produced by being taped off and then removing the tape at various stages in the artmaking process.
Ed Ruscha. The Back of Hollywood. 1977. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Of course including letters and words formally is not without a history; Jasper Johns tightly entwined formal aspects into his explorations of the alphabet and numerals, and Ed Ruscha similarly used words to construct paintings or to occupy them. Notably of White’s characteristic multi-canvas works, Ranc does contain a canvas-within-a-canvas, evoking a look similar to Jasper Johns' iconic Three Flags (1958).
Wendy White. Le Grau '96. 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 120". Image courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
A standout work in the exhibition was Le Grau ’96 because it nodded to this legacy while remaining a work wholly of White’s own; I detect echoes of Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood paintings in this work, particularly his The Back of Hollywood from 1977. Le Grau ’96 contains its title disjointed across two canvases, one cutout, with the words jumbled up, letters disjointed and even upside down. It doesn’t reveal its coherence readily (which the work French Cuts does, much to that piece’s detriment), and puzzling out the meaning becomes fun as well as giving the viewer insight into the way White is using language. White’s gestural flourishes of spray paint are quite satisfying in this work, and the others on view, with oranges subtly accenting the right and darker blacks building up on the right. It should also be mentioned that key to this work’s success, and every work on view really, is White’s keen sense of formal economy, what is on the canvases fits there in harmony, there’s no feeling of accumulation or excess elements. These works abide by their own logic that creates cohesiveness and purpose.
“FRENCH CUTS” finds White creating work that is mysterious and productive; I’ve only begun to explore the works mentioned here. In this short review I’ve been content to explore her newest (to me) development, language, but White’s use of spray paint, color and canvases are all subjects that could occupy entire articles and maybe they eventually will. I certainly am hoping to see more work in Chicago by this painter in New York City. I just hope it won’t be another two years until I do.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago