So Pretty When You Smile: The Gothic Enigmas of Tommy White
Tommy White at Harris Lieberman
August 31- October 2, 2010
89 Vandam Street, between Greenwich and Hudson
New York City, 212-206-1290
Tommy White’s work is like a stolen glimpse at a dirty magazine, a guilty pleasure. His recurring, sometimes highly unusual themes include striped patterns, feet, and fecal matter, delivered with technical adriotness. The artist’s latest exhibition at Harris Lieberman, his third solo show with the gallery, includes the regulars, although feet are visible clearly in only one painting and his stripes, though ubiquitous, lack his customary punk defiance and flair. Previous exhibitions featured brilliant colors and surrealistically distorted and fragmented figures, implying a fascinatingly twisted narrative just out of reach. In the present show, however, there is a drastically darkened palette; to those of us familiar with the artist’s past oeuvre the color feels diminished, awakening a longing for just a hint of the golden yellows and rich reds we know he is capable of. White has also left most representational subject matter behind; only two of the ten paintings in the exhibition are overtly figural, and even then their stories are presented matter-of-factly, rather than tantalizingly hinted. These abstractions, though adequately composed, leave one pining for the gothic enigmas of the old White.
Worried, (2010) presents a trussed-up torso hung from a cross-bar, worrisomely missing its extremities. Two more large paintings, Day Dreaming and Hole, (both 2009) expand upon vertical and horizontal tensions – stripes and circles – in an oppressively somber palette. The last painting in the front gallery, Love Comes, (2010) depicts splayed stocking-clad legs, one across each panel of the diptych, with some sort of evacuation clumping along the seam between the two. In the middle of the room fifteen free-standing small sculptures are clustered together on a low platform. White originally made sculpture to explore ideas and compositions for painting, and has only lately began to exhibit these alongside his canvases. The sculptures, which function well as studies, are less effective as works in their own right. Some of the plaster verticals are clothed, several in crudely stitched leather patches, one in lace, and one in a jock-strap. Several feature uninviting pink orifices, dotted with glazed goo. In the back gallery a row of five small paintings line the south wall, each exemplifying a different use of White’s lumpy impastos, black stripes, and newly obfuscated palette.
Pretty When You Smile, (2010) is the most interesting painting in the show for it represents a synthesis of the artist’s past and present styles. The colors are subtle without appearing limited: against a pale pink background bifurcated by a column of grey and black stripes a teeming mass of bulbous shapes clench and coil around one another. A pair of black feet and gnarled hands emerge from fleshy pink ovals, as though the tumorous shapes are becoming human, one part at a time. Across the bottom of this painting the phrase “so pretty when you smile” is unevenly printed in capital letters, an example of a tendency in this new body of work to incorporate text. The incongruous sentiment expressed is entirely at odds with the formal content – the work is anything but pretty- and yet this verbal cue adds another dimension of meaning to the visual complexity, defying any easy interpretation. If White is intent on continuing to explore his materials in a restricted palette and to eschew figuration, he would do well to build upon the tool of language to replace the subtracted color and representational elements. That said, I for one continue to hope for a return to the perverse imagery and gory color of his past. The more subversive, unsettling older work rarely failed to stimulate a flight of fancy or, at the very least, a shudder.