James White

Max Wigram Gallery

Surveying the flotsam and jetsam of his own daily life, British painter James White catalogues objects that occupy interstitial space, the remnants of activity or the harbingers of things to come. In the painting cycle “The Rough with the Smooth” (all works 2008) and the series “Relationships,” White demonstrates sensitivity to the ways in which functional artifacts assume a fuzzy symbolism when looked at with a certain rigor (his rendering is close to Photorealist) and with a certain intensity (in this case, cool but exacting).

The arrangements of “The Rough with the Smooth” look convincingly unconsidered—the kinds of arbitrary compositions that might result from a shutter released accidentally. In The Sink, for example, a plug chain is draped over a paint roller while a rubber glove lies crumpled next to the tap; the tiled white wall behind is streaked and flecked with moisture. The harsh light of a flash is concentrated roughly in the painting’s center, leaving the corners to recede into shadow, and this spotlighting—in conjunction with the overall lack of color—gives the image the indifferent look of surveillance footage. There is no obvious center of attention, no immediately obvious punctum, but the setup feels suffused with an unnamable yet nonetheless familiar emotion.

The effect recurs in works such as Twix, which shows a cheap printer sitting on a coffee-stained tabletop next to a chocolate bar; and especially in Under the Microwave, an abject arrangement of pills, crumbs, dust, and wiring, that conjures a tabletop cityscape with a scuffed tiled wall for a sky. The exquisite awkwardness of Broken, in which the wreckage of a wineglass sits next to its still-standing stem and base, is emblematic of the series as a whole. White’s clean, hard technique—he paints in oil on panel, varnishes the results to a high shine, and encases each picture in a Plexiglas box frame—at first draws us in, curious, but then keeps us at bay, emphasizing objecthood but denying us an unfiltered view.

In the three paintings from “Relationships” shown here, the scene shifts from physically stable (if psychically disorderly) domestic space to the liminal zone of a commercial airliner’s passenger cabin. Restricting his gaze to the fold-up tray table in front of him on a solitary flight from Germany to England, White again extracts mute, ambiguous drama from his otherwise unprepossessing surroundings; here he focuses on the meager throwaway comforts of economy class. Paper coffee cups, single-serving cream containers, and crumpled peanut wrappers, ranged across the surface like errant chess pieces or clustered together in apparent reconciliation, seem trapped in sulky familial standoffs.

White’s stark refusal to admit of a wider visual world—nowhere in “The Rough with the Smooth,” for example, does he zoom out to indulge our curiosity about what his objects might look like from further away than arm’s length (though the tangled stereo wires in Dad’s Deck represent what we assume is a greater chaos beyond it)—might suggest an unhealthy degree of introspection. The same concern arises with “Relationships,” in which he worries repeatedly at the reflections in a plastic glass but largely ignores whatever might be visible out the window (or even in the rest of the cabin). More likely, though, what White exhibits is neither more nor less than a quiet confidence in the capacity of a few very modest things to speak unexpected volumes.

Michael Wilson