Wendy White

Wendy White Interview - By Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Sport is a theme that you continue to explore, with sports clothing, sports logos and sports imagery being appropriated and manipulated in a variety of ways.  To begin, I would like to discuss two points.  Why do you parallel art to sports, and what is your affinity with skiing?

Wendy White: I grew up in Connecticut where only rich kids skied.  They had lift tickets on their CB jackets and they went to Aspen for school vacation.  I never skied and I never had a CB jacket.  In my mind, skiing is very exclusive, so this show is partly about the perception of leisure activities as they relate to class, and ultimately the triumph of the working class spirit.  Anyone can put on the gear and feel fast practice and be successful, however what you’re exposed to as a kid that shapes your worldview.  So the gear itself is symbolic to me as an access point. Get the gear, assume the look, and achieve the goal.

As for the parallel between art and sports, it just seems so clear to me.  As an artist, you go into a room alone, make something, beat yourself up, and try again.  You’re the only one who knows what you’re capable of and how much you’re holding back or letting go.  No one truly shares the real moment of inspiration.  I imagine it must be insane for a ski jumper—when you’re up there, the crowd is cheering, but you’re all alone with your thoughts.

SC: Of course, it must be a pretty intimidating sensation for a skier to put oneself in such a position. This idea of the skier hoping to win over the crowds, aiming to succeed and awe is similar to that of the artist through their work. It is a parallel world where both are hoping to be critically well acclaimed. What do you consider to be the primary concerns of an artist who puts oneself in such an equally vulnerable and challenging position? Do you consider openings or reviews daunting in regards to the reception of your work being well received?

WW: I definitely see a parallel, yeah.  The big difference of course is that art is a game of longevity, and sports are exactly the opposite.  Retirement is early and inevitable in sports.  Art is about maintaining mental acuity for as long as possible.  In both, the phrase “just stupid enough to be great” is applicable. You can’t overthink anything.

SC: Throughout your oeuvre, imagery is regularly present, the images not only clarifies the subject matter being explored within each series, but also generates an interesting energy between both representational and abstract painting.  What are your opinions on painting today where there is such a focus on abstraction, whilst a re-emergence of the figure is becoming more apparent?

WW: I started using inkjet prints in 2012, for my third show at Leo Koenig. The article “Provisional Painting” had come out a couple years earlier, and I was one of the painters the author said was self-canceling, or something like that.  I didn’t agree with it.  I saw my work being shuttled into a pure abstract painting conversation, and I’d always been a content-based painter.  In my mind, the abstract painting happening in New York was more about process than ideas, and I wasn’t interested in that. That ambivalence coincided with an interest in Chinatown history.  What made me happy at that time was exploring neighborhoods on foot, reading New York history books, and thinking about accumulation, tenement living and city grit.  So I decided to bring photography into my work, to have representational images wrap around my quasi-abstract canvases, like deli signs wrap around façades, as a reference to the way New York is built by layers of advertising and street marks.  It made sense to me that, rather than being directly on work, the photos were on top – skimming, not physically touching – the painted elements.  I had them fabricated at a Chinatown sign shop.  A year or so later I brought in the figure with sports photography.

SC: Within Skiing at Galerie Jerome Pauchant, the gray tiled floor is covered with a carpet, comparable to a blanket of snow.  Tell me about your idea to do this for it brings to mind the installation of your past exhibition, El Campo (2014), at Van Horn Gallery where the flooring was also carpeted?  Over the course of the exhibition did the carpet gather the equivalent of ski-trails?

WW: The carpet will be a teal blue for Skiing.  I’ve done white carpet for three shows in the past, and I love it, but it would have been too literal to reference snow for this exhibition.  I decided to loosely reference sky, or the bluish tone of ice.  At Van Horn, I thought the carpet would be super dirty by the end, but it stayed clean enough that the guy with the next show stole my idea and used it too.

SC: In regards to this idea of skiing trails, when viewing your works Elan (Sara Takanashi) 2015, Rossignol (Elan) 2015, or Hart 2015, I can’t help but parallel the zig-zag’ing gestural lines to that of a skiers trails after traversing a hill.  I am aware that such lines are present throughout your oeuvre, particularly present in works such as 11 Oliver 2012 or Doyers and Pell 2011.  Was it a conscious decision to specifically connect these gestures to skiing, or do you simply consider such zigzag lines as having the capacity to adopt various translations?

WW: The latter.  I’ve used that type of gesture for a long time as the essence of speed, because the diffused gesture is naturally faster looking than a mark made by brush.  I also think of the pictorial space of the canvas as similar to a playing field.

SC: Certain works within your Tondos series include the embellishment of Perspex sports branded tags, featuring silhouettes of logos by Bauer, K2, Rossignol and Elan.  The works that simultaneously feature these brands are also named after them: K2/Bollé 2015, Elan 2015 and Rossignol 2015. I am interested to know why there is such a literal connection to these brands through the works titles, and overall what is the significance of a works title within your practice

WW: Sometimes my titles are more associative, but in this case the brands were the inspiration for each painting, so it made sense to title them literally.  That way the brand names are both the concept and the form/composition.  The Tondos are kind of based on spirit catchers.  Basically I’m saying that there’s a spiritual aspect to playing sports and to being a fan that cannot be adulterated by the tsunami of corporate interests that pervades the game.

SC: What is your view on brand loyalty?  Is this concept transferrable to that of an artist?

WW: That’s something I think about a lot.  It’s fascinating to me that we wear our team’s jersey in spite of the color, the style, or the sponsor, and we vehemently despise the opposing team’s gear.  I was just thinking today of artists who seem so afraid to go “off brand” that they never try anything new.

SC: True, though this idea of an artist refraining from going “off brand” is so connected to the market and gallery pressures for those to continue pumping out similar paintings/works that are in ‘demand’. Of course there are multiple known stories of how this back fires, but I am curious to know your thoughts on the art market and how you feel it is dangerous for the artist if they pay too much attention to it…

WW: I don’t know.  I guess I just have very little patience for artists who take baby steps.  I want big, bold moves.  Risky ones!  The art market is so fickle that it just doesn’t make sense to cater to it.  When a former gallery started asking for paintings without things “sticking off the edges,” I left.  I’m not saying I’m the world’s biggest badass, but way too many artists will jump off the integrity train as soon as they get affirmation for something.  In art school we’re all taught to prize originality, but then we learn quickly that the art world is ruled by fear and conformity – a.k.a. you’re better off in the short term if you just riff on something from the canon.  But who really wants success that way?  Sacrificing your freedom is just not worth it.  It’s entirely up to you to maintain a high level of intellectual curiosity with your work.  Some day, on your deathbed, do you want to look back and think, oh yay, I made all those paintings that look so consistent and I didn’t get any press because I didn’t take a single risk and now the money’s gone anyway?  Flat line.  It’s inevitable that people will stop giving a shit at some point, so at least make some bold moves.  Maybe, at the very least, some art student will dig you up in 50 years and think, whoa, what a weirdo.

SC: Tell me about your studio and day-to-day routine, do you aim for set hours of being in your studio? Do you live close by your studio?

WW: I live in Chinatown and my studio is in Brooklyn, so it takes about 45 minutes.  I’ve never been a set hours type.  I had jobs for 15 years before I got to be in the studio full-time, so the last thing I want is to make my studio feel like a job!  I am fortunate to have a lot of freedom and no set schedule.  It’s so fun.  I don’t take it for granted because for many years this was not the case.

SC: What are some of difficult moments for you in your process of completing a work?  Would it be easy for you to over-work a painting or is every mark and step well considered?

WW: I don’t overwork paintings unless I’m in the middle of transitioning to something new.  In those moments, my head is not right and I tend to cram too much in.  It takes a bit, and then I pare down.  Right now I’m working on some sculptures, freestanding pieces, which I haven’t made in years.  So that’s been difficult; there’s a learning curve.

SC: One question I regularly ask during my interviews touches on the preciousness of the artists work through their own eyes.  So, to what extent do you destroy paintings that you are not satisfied with? What is your process here when dealing with such paintings or do you prefer to simply store a painting away to then revisit at a later date?

WW: I don’t destroy much, but I do paint over or alter works that I don’t like.  And I’ve changed paintings that have come back to my studio for whatever reason.  I never store things away at my studio and rework them later, though.  If it’s there and it’s not good enough, I keep working on it until it is.

SC: Are there any specific artists who you would say have been particularly inspirational to you?

WW: In undergrad it was the 90s LA scene—Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy—they seemed super reckless and I loved that.  I was really influenced by Jessica Stockholder’s early work.  Later it was Jim Lambie, Isa Genzken, and Fabian Marcaccio.  I respect artists who truly innovate and relentlessly crush forward.


 Wendy White

Images courtesy of Wendy White, Galerie Jerome Pauchant and Van Horn Gallery