Author: Ganis, William
Date published: March 1, 2011
Pae White: Material Mutters
The Power Plant
October 9, 2010-January 2, 2011
In "Material Mutters," Pae White engaged the Power Plant's architectural spaces with her monumental tapestries. While these textiles dominated the exhibition, two video pieces and many intimate computer "carvings" informed viewers about the digital imaging strategies applied across the displayed works.
Skygazing (2006) consists of eight textiles, each functioning alone as a complete composition. Together they comprise a mural-sized continuity evocative of James Rosenquist's layered surrealist billboards. White aggrandizes cast-off objects such as telephone book pages, weeds, and fabric cuttings in her textiles, and layers her photographed or Photoshopped elements to achieve astonishing trompe l'oeil effects. Illusionistic space that initially reads as convincing becomes ambiguous through complex layering and illusionistic holes (including White's hallmark hexagons) that seem cut into images of scattered paper and cloth bits. The imagery includes references to tapestry, notably pictures of colorful threads and cut paper, woven together like fabric.
Tapestries have a complicated history of reception. In the Middle Ages they were among the most expensive and labor-intensive visual expressions, exclusive treasures that traveled with their owners. During the Enlightenment they were often stored or cast aside, and found renewed value and scholarly interest only in the late nineteenth century through William Morris and the following Arts and Crafts movements. Despite their medieval prominence, nineteenth-century collectors, historians, and stewards relegated tapestries to a "decorative" designation. Even among medievalists today, tapestries have secondary status relative to scholarship concerning architecture, sculpture, or manuscript painting. Until recently they have conveyed the very idea of intensive labor. While the industrial revolution brought machines that could execute textiles with increased sophistication, recent digital jacquard looms are able to weave just about any pixel-based image. Only now do automated processes rival the intricacies of their medieval predecessors.
The exhibition's centerpiece, Studio A-Z, MMVII (2007), was installed in the gallery's Grand Atrium. Four lush fabrics - each more than seven meters tall - commanded the space. The narrowness of the hall forced viewers to see the textiles up close, to the point where illusions began to dissolve into material, and the optic became haptic. At this distance, the trompe l'oeil effects did not work equally well. The hexagonal paper and cloth scraps (as if cut from Skygazing), as well as repoussoir stitches, are very effective - the supreme irony being that the photographs reproduced with this photorealistic technique are the least convincing items. In a particularly engaging passage, enlarged are overlayed with representations of pixels, the significant digital static becoming an imaged artifact through Photoshop and the digital looms White uses to achieve these weavings. each "pixel" is materially comprised of many hundreds of threads.
Sea Beast (2010) is a large cotton and polyester tapestry sporting a photorealistic image of a macramé object that is itself an abstracted landscape in browns, greens, and blues. When the macramé is reoriented to its side, it reads as a tentacled creature from the deep. An orange S3 price tag sets up the illusionistic picture plane, but more importantly, announces the devaluation of craft, especially so-called "women's work" such as textiles. White posits a dichotomy in this piece whereby the macramé's unique quality and the obvious labor involved in its creation is pitted against the digital and "automatic" tapestry representing it. The artist has altered the macramé's scale from a few feet to more than six meters and, in so doing, not only gives it presence, but ascribes heroic and mural-sized importance to this intimate, handmade item. In this and other efforts, White seems intent on articulating paradoxes inherent in the art/craft dichotomy. It seems a given that the handmade object, with its invested "love hours" (as Mike Kelly called the pathos of handmade toys in his 1980s installations) is not artistic. Sea Beast seems to contain a selfreflexive critique, suggesting that manual skill is devalued in favor of a hackneyed Duchampian (repositioning that marks this work as contemporary art.
The handwoven Candy Apple Crinkle (2008) is exhibited among many other digitally executed tapestries and falls short of their photographic fidelity. This handcrafted piece depicting crumpled foil reads as a textile, while a machine-made work such as Hollywood Crinkle (2010) can be read as "pure" image - an illusionistic sum of colors and reflected light.
Thirty-six Smoke Studies (2010) are hung two high in a long gallery; at first glance they read as precision drawings on paper. A closer examination reveals digital artifacts of tiny dots. To be precise, these marks are computer carved from thin, color-saturated paints. A symbol of the ephemeral, smoke marks the strange (im)materiality of these works, especially the subtracted paint dust and exposure of paper that forms each image. With their designer colors, seriality, and difference in sameness, the Smoke Studies update Warhol's silkscreens, and much like his Shadows series (1978), White's carved marks can also represent nothingness. By making negatives - or value inversions - in about half of these studies, White further complicates how substance contrasts with absence as binary pairs in the service of representation. Just as Warhol conflated painting and printing with his screens on canvas, White blurs distinctions among painting, drawing, and sculpture in these machinerendered objects.
Two video presentations, Dying Oak - Elephant and Wild Raspberry Bush - Ballerina (both 2009), present "fly-throughs" within threedimensional digital models made by scanning these natural forms. The images are simplified into topical data meshes marking these objects' "skins." The animations consist of radical perspectival shifts, viewing the tree and bush up close, beneath, or within their digitized forms. It is difficult to orient oneself in the data stream, or even to discern what the points of light collectively represent.
Digital art, including rapid prototyping, computer-generated images, video, internet art, computer-controlled milling, and video games, are prevalent visual expressions. Like craft, these technologies can be a marginalized subset within contemporary practice. With the most visible expressions in Hollywood, product design, and other commercial fare, a dividing "applied" designation (as opposed to the broadly accepted "fine art media") is given to nearly all things digital. Mediations similar to White's, but without her calculated positioning, are frequently met with skepticism akin to Charles Baudelaire's charges against photography's pretentions to art. As is the case with crafts such as glass or ceramics, computer art becomes relegated to specialized institutions such as Eyebeam in New York City or ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Crossing over, then, becomes a semantic game. White's endeavors are critically acclaimed neither for their astonishing verisimilitude, nor as celebrations of spectacular technologies, but because she offers a thoughtful, self-reflexive critique of how the items she produces uneasily fit expectations for contemporary art.
WILLIAM GANIS is a professor of art history at Wells College in Aurora, New York.