Wendy White’s paintings are some of the most dynamic and edgy abstractions being made today. When I was first introduced to her work back in 2005, they were raw, brash, confident—everything that the art world was not at the time. In short, seeing Wendy’s work was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Since then she has continued to make works that challenge the space between image and object. In 2008, Wendy mounted Autokennel, her debut show with Leo Koenig in New York. Those works stretched out from the traditional rectangular format onto multiple panels forming irregular shapes.
Wendy’s first international solo exhibition, Feel Rabid or Not, is currently on view at Galería Moriarty in Madrid, Spain. The work for this show continues her trajectory with a deft confidence, while bringing forward elements such as text that at one point were only hinted at. Below is a conversation between Wendy and I after visiting her studio to view the completed work for Feel Rabid or Not.
Kris Chatterson The newest works take on problems of form and practical issues of construction. For example, in the painting Apte, 2009, you’ve created a painting-within-a-painting by building a frame around the central canvas. How do you start a painting like this?
Wendy White I paint the frames and the canvases separately then I put them together and paint them again. I don’t want them to be too fussy and special looking, so I leave the flaws, like sometimes the canvas doesn’t perfectly meet the frame, stuff like that—things that contribute to their objectness and offset the false intimacy of the framing process.
KC That objectness is really played up in a work like Reverb, 2009, which stands on the floor and leans against the wall. I’m interested in the relationship of objectness and image in your work. They are two seemingly contradicting forces that play out in a variety of ways. I think physicality is a big part of it. Not just in the physical nature of the work, but in the way in which they are made. Under what circumstances did the first paintings that had a direct relationship to objects, like nevercracked/roomy from 2007, come about?
WW I had this idea to make “co-dependent” paintings and sculptures that would be shamelessly and obviously needy of each other. I guess it was a way to make the construction process matter. Then I got the idea to have steel “arms” attach to the wall and wrap around the paintings… to activate the unpainted areas. But that was still too indirect so now I glue the objects right on.
KC What informs the scale?
WW I just go on feel.
KC Over the last few years I’ve watched as some elements have come into focus while others have taken a back seat. Like you were saying, the sculptures started out in the world then slowly worked their way closer and closer and finally ended up in the paintings themselves. Text shows up early on, but sits way in the back, or is very small, and now has a dominant position in the work.
WW I felt weird about the text creeping in more and more, but I knew it needed to be there and that it was lame to cram it in corners—too ancillary. I knew it could probably do something if I let it, so I opened it up.
KC A similar thing happens with the airbrush. The earlier work contains thick heavy passages of muscularly painted brush marks that have given way to equally physical airbrush passages. How do you make decisions about what stays and what goes? Are you analytical about it or does it come out of your process?
WW I really don’t analyze—at least not in the way I think you mean. I like to be myopic while I’m painting and be surprised later, that way they’re not executions of ideas but living moments. That probably sounds like some hippie Ab Ex garbage, but I’m not into paintings that are labored over in that way. I used to think following my instincts without intervention was cheating or less serious, but then I decided that the viability of my conceptual framework relies on making really bold, physical moves.
KC “Moments” is the key word. I wonder how we can get around the hippie Ab Ex thing. I think that this kind of trust in process is a valid way to work. There is a different thought process—one that is built on years of trial and error and continual investigation into the possibilities. I believe that working in this physical, trusting way has a relationship to being an athlete. This kind of in-elegance is based in the body, and painting this way has a lot to do with a live moment with the painting. I know it starts to sound metaphysical, but there is nothing “meta” about it. There is a state of mind of great focus that is achieved when this activity takes place. I’m wondering if those of us who paint this way should try to find a better way to talk about what we do, a way that is separate from Ab Ex modes. Our interests are different. What are your thoughts on this?
WW I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have said “hippie Ab Ex garbage” because I actually agree with the Ab Ex philosophy, it can just sound idealistic to apply it today. I don’t get all highfalutin about the subconscious, but I do rely heavily on intuition, so it’s really not all that different. Plus they were too old to be hippies… they were post-WWII drunks. I guess the biggest way I differ from them is that ‘60s objectness is a touchstone for me—Rauschenberg, Dine, Warhol, even early Minimal strategies of body de-centering—plus I don’t drink that much. And there’s the fact that I’m a woman, which frees me from major historical burden. That freedom is prevalent in current work by many women. As for the language to describe it, I don’t really worry about it.
KC Can you name a few women artists who are working as you describe?
WW Joyce Kim and Keltie Ferris come to mind… Charlene von Heyl, Joanne Greenbaum, Jasmine Justice, Alison Fox, Isa Genzken, Cheryl Donegan, Jacqueline Humphries, Rosanna Bruno, Amy Sillman… some of these artists might not want to be part of a list like this… I mean, it’s nothing I’ve discussed with any of them or anything. Plus I could be wrong. Some male painters work like this too, but what I’m talking about is a “fuck you” type of freedom that seems to be mainly propagated by women.
KC I think there are a lot of really great women abstract painters who are shaping how abstract painting is perceived. I don’t mean to suggest any kind of organized movement, but there is something in the air.
WW Yeah, definitely.
KC Back to your work. I’m really interested in how you interact with edges, whether it’s how your marks interact with the literal edges of the canvas or the fabricated edges from tape and spray application. I really don’t know of any other painter who works with the edge the way you do. In a lot of cases it seems your edges push into a vacuous center or at least push towards a “blank” area of canvas. How does all of this come about?
WW Well, the canvas is that dumb old cliché, the whole paradox of being full of potential but limited at the same time. There’s this space to paint, but then it drops off and you have the wall to deal with. So I use hard and soft edges and atmosphere. I lop off corners or hit the very edge with color—things that question the physical boundaries. Lately I’ve had the tendency to leave big empty areas. I keep going until the empty parts are either full of nothing or irrevocably flat and lifeless.
KC Are the “nothing” areas also a result of the scale of these paintings? How do you work with the multiple panels? Do you add panels as you go?
WW My bigger paintings have more exposed canvas, yeah. I usually have the configuration of canvases nailed down before I start painting.
KC Which artist(s) have meant the most to you as you have developed over the years, and why?
WW Andy Warhol. I loved him since I was a kid. The first time I stood in front of his work was almost a religious experience. Later, I was completely obsessed with Eva Hesse—her work, her life, her face. I practically memorized that Lucy Lippard book with the gray cover. Her Yale retrospective was the year I graduated from undergrad and was life altering. Then, of course, Philip Guston. And Isa Genzken blew my mind when I first saw her work.
KC Genzken is amazing. How is Warhol an influence and in what way was the Hesse retrospective life altering?
WW Warhol… oh wow… everything… his instinct, his confidence, his love of image, the flaws. He knew how to make a painting and wasn’t afraid of that. And he had utterly perfect timing. With Hesse, it was visceral—the materials, the physicality. She did everything I’d ever want to do with forms. Seeing the Yale show, feeling the toughness and tenderness, the way the materials were lovingly manipulated into these aggressively additive forms… it was the first time I’d really seen that carried through without a thematic caveat.
KC What excites you most about abstraction?
WW The process is way more interesting to me than painting things. When you paint a thing, you can’t help but think about what the “real” thing looks like… you have to break your rhythm and get all technical. Suddenly you’re putting a highlight on something with a tiny brush and you just want to kill yourself.
KC It’s no wonder you took to Warhol then, he was a master of process and image. I could not agree more about the tiny brush! What is your approach to the colors you choose?
WW For a while, I was using tons of black punctuated by fluorescents. I was into the rebelliousness of black since it’s typically used as a cover-up. Lately I’m bringing in dingy grays with a lot of canvas showing through. I’m also using raw canvas a lot, which punches everything up a notch because it really absorbs the paint, almost like dye. I guess I like for the palette to be kind of trashy—both trashy synthetic and trashy dirty—maybe like neon signs on overcast days?
KC What a great thought. One of the things I love about abstract painting is how it can point to phenomena in the world yet remain ambiguous enough to allow for a range of experience. Are there things or experiences in the world that excite you in the studio?
WW Not directly. There are things that synthesize into my paintings—athletic gear, advertisements, fonts—but I don’t translate them into paint. Like, for instance, the soccer balls. If I painted one, it would just be silly. Having the real object is better because its appeal is built in. I don’t want to be involved in dismantling meaning and reconstituting it through some third-party brushwork. I guess that’s how I treat the painting as a whole. While I’m painting, I think about the painting.