New York

Tommy White

Harris Lieberman

Beginning in 1951, Robert Rauschenberg produced a number of so-called black paintings, which, with their thick, cracked surfaces, later prompted Helen Molesworth to suggest their resonance with “fecal matter: the smeared quality of the paint, the varying degrees of viscosity, and the color—shit brown and black.” Her reading takes seriously the twin poles of pleasure and disgust that Rauschenberg so expediently summons. And yet, in his characteristic acts of wiping, pressing, and staining, he errs on the side of tactility—however exquisite—which is to say of desublimation. “Rauschenberg,” as Molesworth makes clear, “radically reinserts the lower body into art.”

Tommy White’s work picks up where Rauschenberg’s leaves off. For his second solo show at Harris Lieberman Gallery, White offered the optic and the haptic in equal measure. His five epic canvases—the pictorial scope and physical dimensions of which are made even more striking by the contrast of scale provided by little sprouts of hair that emerge, mushroom-like, from patches of most—comprise headless torsos and bodily fragments in various states of evacuation or decomposition. Homesick (all works 2006), for one, evinces a perfectly modeled, bubble-gum-pink leg emerging from an amorphous mass. Complete with a pendant of well-formed balls, it is awkwardly bent and pressed to the picture plane, uncanny (hence the title perhaps) in its hyperreality.

Bloated and Pretty Please feature the torsos that are conspicuously absent from Homesick, but there are still no faces, just shit seeping through the open fingers of an outstretched hand or coils of fetal-looking entrails. In the signal-orange Bad for Boy, broad planes of color and watery runs of paint form and emanate from splayed buttocks. In all cases, the paint handling threatens to upstage the depicted “content,” however aggressively evident it may be. Alternately thinned to the consistency of a sugary glaze and slapped on so lumpily and thickly as to become more obdurate in its materiality than the skin it elsewhere depicts, paint is everywhere the point.

This oscillation between figure and ground, or pigment and what it represents (or more often conceals), is explicit in the group of untitled painted photographs that were hung alongside the paintings. For these, White shot existing clay, plaster, blown-glass, and fabric-covered sculptures he had made between 2003 and 2005, then isolated compositional elements by applying white enamel sign paint and hot-pink translucent ink. Glimpsed from odd vantages, the photographed works are further decontextualized when seen only partially, as in Untitled (2)’s imperfect cruciform. The series thus redoubles the paintings’ plays, at the same time offering a kind of companion to them that strips them bare as process and literal subject.

While the photographs of sculptures imply, in their procedural repetition and photomechanical processing, a more mediated engagement, they still analogously propose a set of very human conditions that echo those in the more expressionistic paintings, namely lust and violence. Perhaps they even make clearer the extent to which White’s project is about estrangement. They, like the oils, are oddly raw for being so thoroughly worked. It is this procedural investment—manifest at the level of forms—that admits White’s attempts to image the unutterable. Whether through vulnerability or abandon, White’s interest seems to lie in getting to what bodies reveal apart from the rationalization of language or the opprobrium of cognition: their desultory baseness and inherent foreignness, even when—or especially when—they are our own.

Suzanne Hudson