James White, The Large Glass 8, 2021, oil and varnish on acrylic-faced honeycomb panel in acrylic box frame, 66 1⁄8 × 79 7⁄8 × 2".

James White, The Large Glass 8, 2021, oil and varnish on acrylic-faced honeycomb panel in acrylic box frame, 66 1⁄8 × 79 7⁄8 × 2".

James White

Glasses, half filled with water, empty, or broken, sitting on smooth reflective surfaces; light fixtures; faucets polished to a shine—these are some of the motifs in London-based artist James White’s black-and-white paintings. Prompting associations with the pictures of seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch—which feature similarly crisp reflections of lights and crystal-clear mirroring of images—White’s work aligns itself with the large body of pictures in the history of art that are about seeing itself. Art historian Svetlana Alpers spotlighted this tradition in her 1984 book The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, drawing connections to revolutionary discoveries and inventions in the field of optics in the Dutch Golden Age and interpreting the art of that time as an attempt to incorporate this new knowledge into painting.

If White’s pictures, too, are about the process of vision, another invention—made possible in no small part by the discovery of the laws of optics in the seventeenth century—has changed things in the meantime: photography. Since a picture could now be produced by a technical contrivance that, by imitating the impression of light on the eye’s retina, eliminates subjectivity, the medium raised the not unwarranted hope that we would finally be able to produce objective representations of the world around us. (There’s a reason why a camera’s system of lenses is known as an objective.)

This promise that photography might yield an unbiased and undistorted image of the world is the subject of White’s paintings. He takes black-and-white photographs of mundane, even banal objects, with a preference for ones whose smooth surfaces reflect light—for reflected light engenders the photographic image. These pictures then serve as models for paintings he executes on wood or aluminum panels, working solely with black and white oil paint. He excludes all other colors on the theory that they would elicit sensations and emotions, which are invariably tinged with subjectivity.

He also tries to efface any trace or peculiarity of brushwork that, as he says, might reflect a particular style and so suggest the painter’s individuality. The surfaces of his pictures are varnished to appear perfectly even, like mirrors. That is why, though painted by hand, these works may at first glance be mistaken for photographs. The impression of technically generated imagery is heightened by the acrylic boxes in which the pictures are mounted. These become part of the works, producing additional light reflexes and elevating the pictures to the status of impersonal objects that might seem impervious to any projection of individual sensibility.

But in fact the pictures have an unmistakably uncanny aura that fills one with amazement. It sets them apart from most Photorealistic painting since the 1960s and lends the photographs a cinematic aspect, prompting the viewer to ask, What actually happened here? And therein lies the singular quality of White’s work: an ambivalence that, despite the insistent technical effort to elude the subjectivity of the gaze, is spellbinding. The beholder’s sense of wonder is primal, as old as the act of seeing itself, and inescapably subjective. At heart, these pictures tell the story of the dashed hope that technical inventions would allow for an objective representation of the world.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.