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Charlie White's Culture of Desire

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"Bored" animation still from "A Life in B-Tween" (2012)

Artist Charlie White is invested in the project of American adolescence. Fascinated by the commodification of desire and how this mechanism operates under capitalism, White's art practice focuses on the teen girl. To White, she is the most powerful bodily form to be employed in the American pop culture imagination, both the locus of reproduction and the focus of misogynistic violence toward women and girls. She could be an embodiment of recycled lust in adherence with hierarchical white, patriarchal standards of beauty. The teen girl is constantly regenerative, yet once she sheds her adolescence, she will never exist as the same commoditized image that White captures in his photographic projects.

White, 42, has been showing internationally since his early 20s. Based in Los Angeles since 1996, he's been teaching at the graduate level for more than 10 years, and was the director of the University of Southern California's MFA program from 2007-2011. He is currently Professor of Fine Art at the University of Southern California's Roski School of Art and Design. White grew up in Philadelphia and New York City, where his father still lives. He completed his BFA at the School of the Visual Arts in New York, and then traveled to Los Angeles to do an MFA at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. A big, burly, bearded man, White is never short on words or stories, naturally gathering a crowd round him whether he's sharing a two-person table at the Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village or chasing his two-and-a-half year old around Cafe de Leche in Highland Park, where he lives with his wife, the poet Stephanie Ford. White is high energy, and at any moment he may be either spouting off art critical theory, pontificating on "what is Los Angeles," or making astute, highly visual observations about the world around him. He is magnetic. He's also got a broader vision of Los Angeles that comes from being a fixture here.

"Lovingkindness" from the series "And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull" (2003)
"Lovingkindness" from the series "And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull" (2003)
"Tate-LaBianca," 2006, from the series "Everything is American"
"Tate-LaBianca," 2006, from the series "Everything is American"

"In the early 1990s, L.A. had already become a destination for the MFA, particularly its relationship to UCLA," says White. "It felt like a very different city then, it was far more affordable, however, it was also not the cosmopolitan experience that it is now." 

In the art world, Los Angeles isn't known for being the market center like New York City. Instead, L.A.'s art world seems to be rooted in its schools -- CalArts, UCLA, USC, Art Center in Pasadena, something that White knows well from his history of working and teaching. Perhaps that's why it works well for White, who lives and works in L.A. and has had solo exhibitions internationally in London, Berlin, Spain, Sweden, and Norway. In Los Angeles, his work has been shown at LACMA and LAXART, but never a commercial gallery.

White began showing with Andrea Rosen Gallery while he was still in graduate school, a relationship that took him through many of his earlier photograph-based, highly-staged series. Two of those are "In a Matter of Days" (1999) and "Understanding Joshua" (2001) in which non-human entities are inserted into group and social situations, asking all around to reexamine their relationship to the other. A similar sort of cute, abject, hyperreal aesthetic, complete with glossy finishes on everything from boy band bodies to a nude female behind and bandaged bloody lamb, follows White into his 2003 series "And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull." What's perhaps best recognized as the first phase of his work -- photographs that capture a relationship to narrative and photography -- grew out into a second phase focused on adolescence as subject matter, for which he is best known.

"OMGBFFLOL" 2008) is an animated, philosophical conversation between two girls with affected Valley accents discussing the nature of consumerism and the language of commodified desire. Additional 2008 projects, including "American Minor," "Comparative Studies," and "Girl Studies" take the socio-consumerist construction of the white adolescent girl as its area of focus, traveling through transgender adolescence, the nature of the girl and her mirror, and the development of teen idols.

"Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #4" from the series "Comparative Studies" (2008)
"Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #4" from the series "Comparative Studies" (2008)

Since 2008, White's work has begun to take on a more collaborative nature. His project "Casting Call" (2010) is exactly what its name implies. For this project, White invited 107 girls to be photographed using a neutralizing formula, looking for something in between go see, a term used in fashion to describe when a photographer is judging a neutral image of their subject to see if they have "potential," or the film industry term screen test, or looking at an actor's screened audition to see if they would work for a particular role. Both types of tests have to do with understanding a person's cinematic narrative potential, and understanding what type of story would work for their look.

Image from "Casting Call" (2010)
Image from "Casting Call" (2010)

White continued his 2012 project "A Life in B Tween," in which animated Valley-accented teen girls wax poetic on how life as TV would be better than their smartphone-amplified, networked lives in which identities transform into brand identities, and also collaborated with musician Bryan Hollon, aka Boom Bip, on Music for Sleeping Children (2012), songs for teen girls ages 12-16. Most recently, his "Self Portrait" series returned to a highly staged, spatially exact measurings of the human form and the foods we put into it, what could be called a self-portrait of the American consumer. But this project seems like a tangent from his latest ongoing textual project, The Enemy, an online triennial journal of art, culture and critique launched in January 2014. White is also currently at work on a TV show, of which he naturally could not offer many details other than it's a girls cartoon and something that he's really interested in and excited about, and it was born out of his teen girl animation "OMGBFFLOL," which did become quite popular with adolescent audiences.

White is now represented by Los Angeles' Francois Ghebaly Gallery. It's a big move for White, who has known Ghebaly for many years, but has not worked with him on this level -- nor has he ever had commercial gallery representation here in L.A.

"I've known Francois since 2006, and since our first encounter we have been friends" says White. "In the last two years, his program has greatly expanded and his platform has become more international and varied."

"Getting Lindsay Linton" from the series "Understanding Joshua" (2001)
"Getting Lindsay Linton" from the series "Understanding Joshua" (2001)
"Cocktail Party," 2001, from the series "Understanding Joshua"
"Cocktail Party," 2001, from the series "Understanding Joshua"

Timing wise, White's new attachment to Ghebaly also comes at a pivotal moment. He has not shown in a U.S. gallery since 2006, the same year that he happened to meet Ghebaly. To inaugurate this new phase of the relationship, in January 2015 he will curate an all-women's sculpture exhibition called "SOGTFO (Sculpture Or Get The Fuck Out)," with works by Kelly Akashi, Nevine Mahmoud, Amanda Ross-Ho, Katie Ryan, Kaari Upson and Andrea Zittel.

In this exhibition, White pairs two generations of sculptors including three established and three younger artists who are just beginning their careers to look at how male-dominated the history of sculpture has been.

White explains that if one really looks at how sculpture has worked and been made, it's evident that "this realm is really dominated by women and their ideas are far stronger than this cycle of the 'male genius persona.'" His title references the derogatory misogynistic phrase "Tits or GTFO."

"Naked Girl Sitting Down, Turning Towards Camera" from the series "Self-Portrait" (2014)
"Naked Girl Sitting Down, Turning Towards Camera" from the series "Self-Portrait" (2014)

"Online boards, hugely popular spaces such as Reddit or 4chan, have been dominantly male, resulting in a culture wherein a user claiming to be female is often promoted with TOGTFO (Tits or Get the Fuck Out) to force the person to 'prove' their claimed gender, and if not, to leave the thread," says White. "This is worth considering since much of the media theory that ushered in this era viewed the internet as a space 'after' gender, or 'beyond the body.' However, what this attitude proves is that the hegemony of male culture, the concept of made-by-and-for-men is in fact immaterial and can cause the same harm outside of physical space and it has historically caused within it. So, I am taking this more current acronym, this language of the immaterial misogyny, and bringing it back to the most material subject -- sculpture -- with SOGTFO (Sculpture or Get the Fuck Out)."

With SOGTFO and his photographic studies, White's fluid, hyper-visual art practice creates another view through which to view the subjugated adolescent female body under American capitalism.

Charlie White's "SOGTFO (Sculpture or Get the Fuck Out)" opens in late January 2015 at Francois Ghebaly Gallery (2245 E Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90021).

Selected works by Charlie White, organized by Francois Ghebaly Gallery
Selected works by Charlie White, organized by Francois Ghebaly Gallery
"Champion," 2006, from the series "Everything is American
"Champion," 2006, from the series "Everything is American

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Further Reading on Charlie White from Artbound:

 

Adolescence, Remixed: Charlie White and Boom Bip's "Music for Sleeping Children"

Visual artist Charlie White collaborates with avant electronic musician Boom Bip aka Brian Hollon, on a new endeavor, Music For Sleeping Children, which pairs interviews with adolescent girls with club-rocking beats.

 

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