Carl White, paintings as silent poetry
Painting has been described as silent poetry, and the best thing about paintings, often, is their silence. It is this silence that allows our own inner voice to starting talking ~ to react, to feel, to consider the art we are viewing. In the silence of looking at Carl White’s work, my own inner voice was speaking loud and clear. As an art historian I am struck with a sense of wholeness looking at White’s work. A vast world of art experience is explored here in these works. A classical marble sculpture, perhaps Greek or Roman, is set against an ochre background and scraped through with vivid alizarin crimson. I am in Italy at once, yet I know I am looking at new Canadian work. Then, a fragment of a portrait bust sits against a beautiful plaster wall, subtle with grey and gold that moves from ancient to new through the telling brightness of lead white, gesso, and intentional drips of paint.
The background is touched by passages of script here and there, and with the word “Paris,” I move to another country steeped in art history. A vivid splash of indigo, a colour so rich in its history as a pigment, mars the delicate figure of Hypnos, depicted in watercolour on a supple piece of handmade paper, and a bronze horse gleams against the landscape of an ancient city while a marble lion sleeps in the foreground. Art history as a field of study, its understanding of colour, its metaphors and symbols are all here; the historical developments in the use of pigment, art discourse in its iconic treatises that are housed in archives across the world and written in beautifully penned longhand, all come to mind. Bronze, marble, ink, oil paint, all the trappings of the artist’s studio are presented in their historical forms in White’s work. Yet the presentation of these things is firmly grounded in today. There are gestural bursts of paint, lines that can only be contemporary, forms that speak of now. Thus Carl White transcends time.
White’s interest in mythology and art history is at the core of his work. His images use Greek gods, famous portraits, and attributes of historical figures as jumping off points. A hand positioned like a Michelangelo hand, a Rembrandtesque figure, a Dutch lace collar, the Greek, Latin, French and Italian languages are all used to draw on collective social memories of art and history. Shaped by his painter’s understanding of technique and medium, colour theory and practice, White presents world art as his art. Using subtle techniques of paint to create plaster, gilt, calligraphic and sculptural effects, White’s work is very contemporary in its approach, yet layered with history both in terms of content and subject, evoking ideas of classicism and modernism at the same time. Baroque and Renaissance style brushwork and play against the abstract swirls and gestural marks of more recent periods of art history. Sfumato contrasts with dripped paint. Ideas of decay; literal, allegorical and metaphorical, come to mind as subtle memento moris.
White’s work is also poetic. The act of writing poetry and the act of making a painting are similar endeavors with an intertwined history. Each seeks to elevate the viewer/reader with images/words that move, elevate, inspire. Each requires brevity, clarity of purpose and directness. In each, success depends on the artist’s mastery of their tools; poetic rhythm, rhyme and meter equal painterly composition, harmony and balance, and in this White succeeds. “Painting is the successful communication to others, through the medium of form and colour, or a worthy of idealized experience in the world of form and colour. Poetry, we might define, as the successful communication through spoken or written words, intensively or rhythmically arranged, of a passionate experience.” Carl White’s own passionate experiences gained through a life long relationship with art are presented with intensity and rhythm of form, colour and text. “In the way that a poet would seek to understand language with the goal of approaching the sublime, I have tried to understand painting with similar purpose,” says White. “I am painting poems, images that dance between realism and abstraction, text and flesh, with the hope that the viewer experiences rather than views.” White achieves this effect well, as we are drawn into the worlds of art and history in all their rich fullness when looking at his work.
Carl White is a graduate of the Alberta College of Art where he studied under Richard Halliday and Charles Malinsky. Since graduating, he has been the subject of numerous solo shows in Alberta and British Columbia and participated in many group shows in Western Canada. His work is held in numerous private collections as well as that of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and EnCana. His public commissions include the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., the Marriott Hotel in North Bethesda, Maryland and the Hyatt Regency Resort in Cambridge, Maryland. White is a member of The Artist’s Circle and was nominated for the 2005 Sobey Award.
Article by Lisa Christensen