Some people just don’t know when to quit – which is what leads, sometimes, to the most interesting stuff around.
Take the case of artist Tom White. Would you know he’s an artist if I – speaking with, ah, The Voice of Media Authority or whatever – didn’t call him an artist?
He’s a 64-year-old guy, this White. He works a day job – the man’s a Realtor, for chrissake, in one of the most heavily rising-and-churning markets in the nation – and he’s a mild-looking, soft-spoken fellow who tends to wear, like, polo shirts and slacks. This is an artist?
But you know better than to judge people by their looks or their default method of making a living.
But – here’s the thing – you take look at the man’s earliest paintings, too, and still you probably don’t think “artist.”
I’m making that guess because I looked at the man’s earliest paintings and I didn’t think “artist.” I looked at the acrylic paintings that White had been doing – a still life or two, renditions of suburban scenes, landscapes, foliage, etc – and I thought, Well, these aren’t bad, it’s nice that Tom has a hobby to keep him occupied. You know? Like, It’s nice that a person can paint things that look pretty much like the things he’s trying to paint, and the paintings are no great shakes, but, hey, they’re good enough so that you don’t think he’s actually wasting his time.
And that was about the height of it.
But Tom White is not a man to settle for the same-old same-old.
“It’s not just that something’s good or bad,” says White, “it’s almost as important that something is different.”
Which is why we’ve wound up, in this town, with a Tom White solo show of artworks called “Process Paintings” – improving the walls of The Clubhouse at Williamsburg Circle on Sunday, June 28, 2-6pm.
This is White’s second show ever, and it’s as stunning as his first “Process Painting” exhibition at the SVT Gallery a couple of years ago.
But we’re getting a little ahead of things here. Because: What the hell is a Process painting, anyway? And why are they so worth your precious art-loving time to experience, to cast your already image-weary eyes on? And where did the idea for these things come from, in the first place?
“There was a class I took – must’ve been in high school or junior high,” says White. “There was a very good watercolor teacher, Jo Taylor, and she taught me a lot about composition and gray scale and color value and all that. And I learned how to talk about painting. But one day Jo said, ‘We’re gonna take a break from watercolor – this’ll be fun.’ And she brought in this tissue paper, and showed us how you can crinkle it up and spray it from the side, and then iron it out, and – she was the one who showed me that. And I just filed that away.”
And then, decades later – enjoying the pastime of working acrylics toward representational images, but wanting to try something different, something beyond the same-old same-old – White unfiled the memory of that process.
[That process. Your reporter is familiar with it.
Listen: When I was a teenager and messing around with spraypaint stencils, just kind of futzing around in the family garage, I noticed the same phenomenon: You spraypaint a crumpled bit of paper from one side, and then you flatten the paper out, and it retains the look of three-dimensions, of the complex shape it held while crumpled. It’s a sort of instant trompe-l'œil effect, an optical illusion that’s really striking. And when I saw that, I, too, filed it away. Like, Oh, I’ll do something with this eventually, right?
But, as happens too often in this busy life, I never did anything with it: I just quit.]
Like it says at the start of this article: Some people just don’t know when to quit.
And Tom White – artist Tom White – is one of those people.
White decided to try the tissue-paper-and-spraypaint technique that his old teacher had introduced him to. He spraypainted a sheet of tissue paper, flattened it out, adhered it to a canvas, and – voila! – there you go: Abstract, 3-D-looking art!
But then – and here’s the main thing – liking the results but nowhere near satisfied, White continued to explore the compelling possibilities of the process. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Experimenting with different colors, spraying from multiple angles, combining separate sheets as overlay or collage, joining canvas to canvas to form larger cohesive works, applying acrylics by hand to bring out the more vivid potential of the engineered abstractions …
For years now.
“Here was something that was different to me,” says White. “It was something worth exploring. And one of the things I like about it, is that it seems modern – I use spraypaint, it’s abstract, and all that – but it also seems to go back to an almost European sort of – I can see statues, and Rome, and a sort of Classical style in the visuals somehow.”
I cannot properly express to you, reader, how beautiful and strange these Tom White Process paintings look. You can see an example or two accompanying this article on the screen, yes; but they can’t reproduce the impact of encountering the paintings out there in the meatspace world. If they didn’t provoke the illusion of depth, their colors alone would excite your eyes and sense of pattern recognition. If the interplay of colors wasn’t sufficiently remarkable – and several of White’s paintings are monochrome – then just the illusory 3-D fabrication would happily twist your perceptions. And the truth is that both of those aspects are in evidence in every piece White has created. And there are many of them, in marvelous diversity.
And, as if that’s not enough, the artist has begun making actual three-dimensional works, too: Wrapping those sprayed papers around sculptural constructions, superimposing the false three dimensions upon the real three dimensions, rendering objects that reward much contemplation.
“That’s the sort of thing that keeps me going in using this process,” says White. “There are so many different ways to approach it to get different results.”
And White’s results, it bears repeating, are something you should really get a good look at. Because they’re not like anything else you’ve seen. Although, as the artist humbly notes, shaking a can of Krylon, “How can anybody do anything in painting that’s really different after Pollock?”
Maybe by not knowing when to quit.
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