New York

Charlie White

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Most viewers will associate Los Angeles–based photographer Charlie White with his distinctive brand of cinematic conceptual photography, one that—particularly early in his career—often married Hollywood production values to a giddily overripe psychosexual imagination. White made his name as the auteur behind the 1996 “Femalien” series—a thoroughly silly set of sci-fi soft-core pix—and a few years later produced the considerably more substantive “Understanding Joshua,” 2000, in which the eponymous antihero, a sad-sack homunculus, makes his way through a landscape of suburban parties and unsatisfying interactions. In such works, White courted strong reactions. And while many admired his technical skill, more than a few also dismissed the work’s reliance on the fantastical and/or pornographic as sophomoric, judging the works a little too slick for their own good and weirdly in thrall to the tropes they were ostensibly designed to interrogate.

But as in his last New York solo show nearly three years ago, White’s new work continues to move away from such exaggeration toward something subtler and more engaging. His new series of photographs, “Everything Is American,” again makes clear that a lighter touch and less hyperbolic material do not necessarily preclude the creation of uncannily perverse and compelling images. In fact, White’s past now functions as a kind of prologue to his new approach, conjuring a set of expectations that these latest works both play on and often deftly confound.

Though the gallery describes the seven images—all large, beautifully produced chromogenic prints executed in 2005—as White’s “first extended exploration of portraiture,” only two of the images, both disarmingly straightforward, would really seem to qualify as portraits: Jody is a close-cropped bust of an androgynous preteen girl; Granddaughter, a full-length shot of a nude young woman in a stuffily handsome drawing room. The uncluttered compositions, the ease of the subjects’ poses, and the directness of their gaze all are pitched to lull the viewer, yet it’s clear that White is banking on his reputation preceding him. He’s spent a career conditioning the viewer to scan his images for eerie narrative disruptions, but here uses nuance and detail to arguably greater effect—evoking a sense of menace not through overt dramatics but through a tiny cut on the girl’s face and an orchid that leers at her from the edge of the frame; desire not through blatant lasciviousness but through a plate of glistening fruit at the woman’s hip.

All of which is not to say that the artist has entirely abandoned the glossy formal devices of high-tone erotica and fantasy. Restrained in comparison to previous scenarios, both Champion—featuring a classically draped hero toting a lifelike Goliath-size decapitated head—and Homo habilis, with its off-kilter natural history diorama vibe, nevertheless seem vaguely hokey exceptions to White’s new lower-key rule. Meanwhile Tate-LaBianca, his fictionalized courtroom shot of Susan Atkins and friends at their Manson family sentencing, is as interesting for the games it plays with history and memory as it is for anything in the image itself. Perhaps most intriguing is the way he’s managed to preserve the purposefully discordant sexual energy of his prior work while mostly deep-sixing the T&A. A signal case in point is The Americans, US Gymnastics Team: Like several of White’s subjects, the coach and the injured young female athlete he cradles Pietà-like in his arms both glisten with a sheen of vaguely postcoital perspiration, their expressions caught precisely on the cusp of pain and pleasure. It’s one of the best and most subversive photos White has made—one that should satisfy both those who loved his earlier works because of their strenuous outlandishness and those who admired them in spite of it.

Jeffrey Kastner