Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


Summer Work: The Art of Pae White

Originally published in Afterall magazine in 2013.

In 2005, while walking through the Frieze Art Fair in London, I detected the distinctive whiff of fresh popcorn. I remember thinking it must be coming from the snack bar, but on turning into the next booth on the right, I was confronted with a monumental artwork: a skip (in the US we’d call it a dumpster) filled to the brim with popped kernels. It turned out that this was a work by the Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Kuri. My immediate reaction was: how very art fair. The beckoning but sickly scent; the explicit reference to mass entertainment; the inevitable onset of staleness; the sheer grandiosity and absurdity of it. Kuri had created the perfect emblem for an art world given over to commercial spectacle.

More recently, I encountered a sculptural use for popcorn a second time, at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2011. This time the kernels gave off no smell. That’s because they were made of porcelain, coloured by hand to look like the real thing. They were also a bit oversized, and were arranged in rows hanging from the ceiling that together described a serpentine river of salty snacks. The installation was by the Californian artist Pae White –and I was smitten right away. If I had smiled ruefully at Kuri’s arch gesture about the current condition of art production and viewership, and then moved on quickly, when I saw White’s work I giggled and wanted to linger. The jaded, seen-it-all frame of mind that sets in so easily at art fairs drained away for a little while. In its place was the joy of finding something trivial made into something wondrous.

It’s a reaction that White’s work produces regularly, and not just in me. Contemporary art does lots of things well, but this sort of considered optimism isn’t one of them. For every artist who can pull off a genuinely life-affirming gesture, you’ll find a hundred who remind you of our reasons (equally genuine) not to be cheerful. And of course, it’s a hard act to keep up. White says that she’s ‘the most cynical, grumpy, impatient person I know’– and speculates that perhaps the positivity in the work ‘comes from a desire for something that eludes me personally’.(1) She points out that the popcorn kernels are slightly burnt, so the piece is as much about disappointment as it is about little explosions of delight. Nor is it without a referential register (‘pop art’– get it?). These aspects of the work seem to me subsidiary, but perhaps they are the key elements that prevent the work from becoming simple-minded spectacle.

One way or another, something somewhere is driving Pae White onwards. In common with many successful artists today, she is constantly on the move, completing multiple exhibitions and commissions scattered across the US and Europe. In 2009, at Art Basel Miami Beach, she erected a village of illuminated tower blocks that served as the principal nightlife spot for the most recent edition of the art fair. When I spoke to her she was also working on an architectural project for San Diego, and a solo exhibition, accompanied by an artistic intervention in the permanent galleries, at the Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK) in Vienna. The latter took White’s own globetrotting itinerary as its subject. She decided to work with a collection of toys in the museum’s collection – reminiscent of early twentieth-century Wiener Werkstätte design, but consigned indefinitely to storage because they were unattributed – and to ask various artisan workshops worldwide to interpret the forms as chess pieces, each in their own specialist medium and traditional decorative style. There would be pottery and porcelain versions from Mexico and Lithuania, wood from Ethiopia and China, and from the US, a plastic set that she likened to a ‘promotional toy from McDonalds’. Also for the solo exhibition component at the MAK, she was working with a tapestry factory in Belgium to realise a metallic textile no less than twenty-nine meters long. The plan for its design was to represent hundreds of pieces of ephemera from the collection piled into a giant archive, a near-abstract jumble that would communicate the depth but also the inherent confusion of the collection.

White’s project in Vienna is the culmination of a trend that has been brewing for some time in her work. Like many artists today, she often has her work made by others.At the beginning of her career, she often crafted her works by hand, carefully and painstakingly. She still makes more than half of her work herself, but another important area of her expertise lies in the sourcing and management of skilful producers. Her popcorn kernels, for example, are made by two trusted ceramic artisans in Lithuania. In fact, part of what gave her the idea of making popcorn in the first place was its universality, which eases the logistics of offsite production. You can get popcorn in any corner store worldwide, so models are readily available for the artisans. Furthermore, given the near-abstraction and wide variation of the form of a popped kernel, there is what she calls‘a high tolerance for interpretation’ on the part of the fabricator. This deliberate margin of error is a consistent feature in White’s work. Though she is determined to get a high-quality outcome achieved through precision craftsmanship, she is willing for this result to be approximate. She creates a big target so as to be more certain her producers will be able to hit it squarely. In effect, this means that she affords a calculated degree of agency to her collaborators. When she has a piece fabricated she rarely asks for a revision, and she values the lack of control that she has in the fabrication process, which makes for ‘a richness, surprise, maybe even a contradiction that I’d be too self-conscious to produce on my own’.

These same dynamics hold true for what are perhaps White’s best-known works, massive tapestries bearing images of fleeting beauty. The series, which began in 2006, has included such ethereal subject matter as a light effect playing in a bank of fog, or a single wisp of smoke against an inky black background. Perhaps the best of these was a commission for the Oslo Opera House, partly because of the context. The building, designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta and completed in 2008, has been justly celebrated for its marriage of high-tech computer-generated form, and intensive craftsmanship. That combination is symbolically represented in the upper echelon of the Opera House, which sports a decorative motif that looks like Braille, or computer punch-cards, but was actually taken from nineteenth-century weaving patterns. The inner auditorium is sheathed in thousands of pieces of hand-split timber, and the exterior of the building in long, sloping planes of white marble. White won the competition to design a stage curtain for this fantastic space, the first thing the audience sees when they enter. Her proposal for the design expressed the spirit of the building beautifully: a digitally-woven tapestry representing a piece of aluminium foil blown up to gargantuan proportions. [Fig 1] To derive the pattern White carefully crinkled a piece of foil by hand until she got an evenly dispersed field of triangular facets. There’s a mild joke here, in that the image recalls the all-over ‘optical’ effects prized by Clement Greenberg in the work of Jackson Pollock or Jules Olitski. White comments, “understanding that the viewers were a captive audience, I was very careful to maintain an “overall abstraction” and not privilege any specific area. I wanted to eyes of the viewers to always be roving the image.” As with the porcelain popcorn kernels, White is aiming for the formal abstraction found in the context of the everyday. The tapestry is powerfully illusory, in that it is dead flat, but reprises at grand scale the haphazard glints that you might experience while unwrapping leftovers in your own kitchen. Though it looks like it is composed of metallic threads, in fact the materials are plain cotton and polyester, artfully interwoven to give a persuasive sense that it is shimmering. White describes this magical effect in anthropomorphic terms, as if the threads “had a dream of becoming something that was not in their nature, a fantasy of being silver and reflective... As if the material itself were in costume, and stage.”

Fig 1 - Stage curtain for the Oslo Opera House, 2011

Fig 1 - Stage curtain for the Oslo Opera House, 2011

When making major commissions like the Oslo curtain, White’s problem-solving capabilities come strongly to the fore. This is the designer/engineer side of her work, which makes her comparable to figures like Thomas Heatherwick, Joris Laarman and Mark Newson. Cross-disciplinarity is supposedly the norm these days, but it’s still rare to find figures who traverse the realms of sculpture, installation art, product design and architecture so freely. White isn’t very interested in such questions of category, but she has a designer’s natural curiosity about different production systems and materials (‘if you were to look at my studio, it’s like a sample room’) and an architect’s ability to meet the conditions of a given site. These ‘weird contingencies’,’ as she puts it, lay at the heart of another of White’s most successful projects – her installation for the 2009 Venice Biennale, where she was part of Daniel Birnbaum’s ‘Making Worlds’. The project had its origins in two haphazard discoveries: first, the ancient Venetian tradition of bird callers or chioccolatori; and second, a recent injunction against feeding pigeons anywhere in the city. White was struck by the ironic disparity between these two trivialities, and she decided to create an artwork to fill the conceptual gap.  

The resulting installation reflected her contradictory instincts for the Grand Guignol and the light touch. White stretched what she calls “a ghost tapestry,” a roof of colourful stretched threads, overhead in the Arsenale exhibition space. The main sculptural elements were a set of monumental bird feeders encrusted with seed, whose elaborate forms were derived from a variety of sources: crystal chandeliers you might encounter at the opera house, cathedral gargoyles, modernist designs, and the glass made on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon. Wandering through the space were professional bird mimics, re-creating complex bird calls without any particular fanfare like whimsical refugees from a Tino Seghal event. The idea was that visitors would hear birdsong all around them, but would be unsure initially of where the tweets were coming from. That could be a nice pun on contemporary social technology, but White’s intention was simply to intrigue visitors to explore and inspect the space. Given the high-profile nature of the Biennale and the heavy medieval architecture of the Arsenale, the playful and deceptive installation came across as a deft sidestep of the gravity of the occasion, like a toreador neatly evading the charge of an enormous bull.  

That manoeuvre, so characteristic of White’s work, raises the possibility that she is a sort of escape artist – which is, in turn, only a hairsbreadth away from being escapist. She grew up in the California of the 1960s, at a time when the West Coast was portrayed as a place of eternal summer. The undeniably upbeat quality of White’s work has its origins in this cultural moment. Her early years were saturated in the material culture of Pop – Milton Glaser posters, Paolo Soleri bells, George Nelson furniture, Vera scarves – and though it is hard-won, her work shares the easeful clarity, high colour and infectious energy of all those designers. White has an extensive collection of Vera textiles, which were some of the first art that she experienced, sleeping on her sheets and peering through her curtains. With her single-name brand (White: ‘it was a mystery to me. Who does she think she is?’), her apparently intuitive method of translating everything around her into designs (‘her dinner last night becomes a scarf the next day’), and talent for aesthetic condensation (‘like a graphic haiku’), Vera is something of a cult figure for White, and an ongoing object of identification.

Fig 2 -  Sea Beast , 2010

Fig 2 - Sea Beast, 2010

After Vera, White’s next important aesthetic encounter was with Millard Sheets, the wide-ranging Southern California artist, whom White knew through his granddaughter, a family friend. Sheets is remembered today both for the breadth of his career – though trained as a painter, he also was an architect, illustrator, and designer, -- and for his work as an educator. He held teaching posts at one time or another at most of the key art colleges in South California (including Scripps and Otis), and also headed up the art component of the Los Angeles County Fair.  Sheets was the first professional artist that White encountered, and what she calls his ‘expanded approach’ of working across media (not to mention his tremendous work ethic) was an important permissive model. Though she is hardly alone among artists of her generation in referring back to 1960s design – think for example of Jim Isermann, Jorge Pardo, Simon Starling, and Assume Vivid Astro Focus -- White returns to the era with unusual fondness. She has made several hanging cut-paper cascades which call to mind various icons of the Pop era: a Calder mobile, a psychedelic light projection, the concentric glass designs of Michael and Frances Higgins, or a particularly spectacular lava lamp. Restless Rainbow (2011), an outdoor installation she created for the Art Institute of Chicago, gave visitors the pleasurable feeling of wandering about on a giant Kenneth Noland painting. Less jovial, yet much funnier, is a tapestry entitled Sea Beast (2010) depicting a found fibre-art hanging – complete with wooden stretcher bars – turned on its side and stretching nearly seven meters along the wall. [Fig 2] Macramé, the ultimate in un-cool craft, is here laid out for inspection, like a frog awaiting a schoolchild’s scalpel. But it is also monumentalised through the medium of tapestry, a major textile art used to ennoble a minor one – another example of White’s use of technique and scale to call our attention to things overlooked, and to juxtapose radically different styles of making, from the handmade to the industrial.

Does White ever long to truly scale down? The answer is yes. ‘I fantasise about moving through a painting series in my studio,’ she says. ‘I want to make art that doesn’t involve attorneys.’ Will she ever get around to it? I’m not sure. If ever there was an artist who thrived on the big stage, she is it. But every so often, running through her work, you do see traces of longing for the simple life. One recent sculpture depicts the leaves that litter the Pasadena sidewalk where she takes her morning run. It’s another image of everyday transience, this time memorialised in canvas and aluminium. That elegiac mode runs all the way back to the beginning of her career, and her first one-woman show, held at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica in 1995 and wonderfully titled ‘Summer Work’, as if she were a student just back from the holidays. There she exhibited the series that first won her wide attention, a series of works of paper incorporating spider webs gathered from her neighbourhood. ‘The fabricators were living in the trees,’ she says, ‘and I would go and collect their output.’ She even got to know the weaving patterns produced by different species. That early project contained the portents of much to come: the instinct to collect the uncollectible, the discovery of abstract draughtsmanship in unlikely places, the permanent fixing of something ephemeral. Behind it all, there is the simultaneously lyrical and deathly sensibility that one finds in so many of her pinned beauties, a quality reminiscent of Romanticism. White’s spider webs put me in mind of that most British of quips, attributed to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘the summer has set in with its usual severity’.

One last fact about Pae White, and perhaps a telling one, is that her first job out of art school was that of a film prop maker. (She worked on Gregg Araki’s hyperactive teen romp Nowhere, 1997.) This wasn’t quite art – it was art direction –but it taught her a lot about the potent combination of detail, focus, and narrative fiction. If you did it right, she says, ‘you could get the whole world into a cigarette’. By now White has left film sets behind, and assumed her role on the stage of contemporary art. But like any good movie-maker, she knows that this is a contrivance, that you know it too, and that many possibilities arise from this complicity. When you encounter a work by Pae White, the best thing is to give in to its magic – because it’s sure to give right back.  

  1. All quotations from the artist taken from conversation with the artist, September 1, 2012. 
WritingMarci LeBrun