Los Angeles

Pae White

Hammer Museum

Of all the objets that thus far make up the baroque oeuvre of Pae White—from the zodiac-themed origami clocks to the cast-iron barbecues in the shape of owls and turtles; from the glazed ceramic bricks to the spider-assisted web drawings; from the cast-Plexiglas monochromes to her advertisements for herself—it is the Color-aid paper mobiles that have steadily assumed representative prominence. The delighted responses they so effectively coax from the public is largely attributable to a perceived discrepancy between the modesty of their materials and execution and the near-sublime luxuriance of the outcome. Paper cuttings affixed to lengths of thread and hung from the ceiling—et voilà! Depending on how they’re configured, the resulting experience will suggest a whirlwind of autumn leaves, let’s say, or, in the words of one artwork label, a cross section of a pond seen seconds before being pelted by a hot pink rainfall.

At this location, the works’ affective range stands out above all. Second City, 1998–2000, is visible through the glass doors of the entrance: Flesh-toned hexagons hang from the lobby’s very high ceilings and gently obstruct the walkway. Grief, 2002, comprising brown, orange, and yellow parallelograms, hovers just off to the side somewhat more diffidently. O R O S C O P O, 2003, hugs the wall by the ramp leading to the upper level, its means of support invisible against its ground by dint of their shared royal blue hue. Here the cuttings are ovoid, reminiscent of cartoonish “googly eyes,” and clustered close to the floor. One more “googly eye” mobile, Aviary, 2000–2001, bisects the balcony railing up above, as though peering over the route we have just traveled.

These are abstract artworks that distill the whole modernist trajectory between Impressionism’s analysis of light and visual perception and the emergence of a phenomenologically grounded aesthetic under Minimalism—and do so in a wholly accessible fashion. One reason often mentioned is that they revisit a set of concerns once strictly limited to art from a perspective equally steeped in the culture of spectacle and product design. Here, modern art’s vaunted reductivism is stopped short so as to take shape instead as stylization. Similarly, when we say that White’s works are not exactly beautiful, we mean that they are stylish, elegant, tasteful. But this no longer amounts to criticism, because it is precisely by way of their pointed “impurity” that these become viable as art in our time.

There is a measure of paradox at work in all this, as White’s subject matter appears increasingly to be drawn directly from the organic world. The mobiles, in particular, effect the sort of perceptual oscillation between macro and micro that is at the crux of any properly Kantian excavation of worldly deep structure. The point can also be made that White’s protean modus—endlessly surprising and, at the same time, consistently “right”—itself partakes of nature’s “genius.” True, but again her innate stylishness keeps us from completing this line of thought.

In the end, White does not really uncover or reveal anything about the world or herself. Interest accrues to her work, instead, because its plotline, its conflict and trauma, is buried under slick layers of hypersophisticated culture. We may note, for instance, the significance of remaking explosive climatic events out of materials more suggestive of commercial domination and control: Worldly color, channeled through the saturated inks of the Color-aid company, becomes explicitly marked as Coca-Cola red, Pepto-Bismol pink, and so on. At the same time, White’s use of Color-aid is itself already antiquated, already knowingly weighted as an analog meta- phor for the ever more immaterial and weightless substance of the digital screen. In effect, “style” here is precisely frozen time, layered and condensed into a screen so thick that it begins aesthetically to subsume its underlying content, but—and this is what separates White from the commercial sector—without completely erasing the memory of that content’s (emotional) intensity.

Jan Tumlir