Regina, Saskatchewan

View of “Conceptions of White,” 2022. From left: Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze, St. James Park, 2006–22; Hiram Powers, Model of the Greek Slave, 1843; Deanna Bowen, White Man’s Burden, 2022. Photo: Carey Shaw.

View of “Conceptions of White,” 2022. From left: Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze, St. James Park, 2006–22; Hiram Powers, Model of the Greek Slave, 1843; Deanna Bowen, White Man’s Burden, 2022. Photo: Carey Shaw.

“Conceptions of White”

Mackenzie Art Gallery

What is white, as a shade, a concept, an identity? Too often, binary ideas cloud deeper investigations into the historical construction of whiteness as a race. In this group exhibition, curators Lillian O’Brien Davis and John G. Hampton explored connections between the political myth of whiteness that developed alongside the dispossession of Black and Indigenous people and the aesthetic and philosophical significance of white in art. Tightly organized yet covering a broad swath of time, “Conceptions of White” began fittingly with Robert Morris’s white-latex-on-aluminum Portal, 1964, which served as a literal and figurative entrance to the gallery. The viewer could choose to walk through this somewhat narrow “doorway”—which had plenty of space on either side—or move around it. Inside, works ranged from a plaster replica of the Apollo Belvedere, ca. 120–140 CE, a marble Roman sculpture long thought to copy a lost Greek original in bronze; to Model of the Greek Slave, 1843, by American Neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers; to work by contemporary artists such as Fred Wilson and Howardena Pindell; as well as new commissions for the exhibition.

White remains pervasive in art and art history, from republican architecture and Greco-Roman marbles still widely and erroneously perceived to have always been white, to the putative neutrality of the white cube. For centuries, whiteness in the West has enjoyed positive connotations of purity, going back to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s ideal of art and beauty as informed by Greek sculpture. This narrative is troubled by Nell Painter’s Ancient Hair, 2019, which interrogates the racial cue of hair to challenge the lie, amplified by the American far right, that the ancients were white. Documentation of Painter’s studio installation detailed her research process, conducting our attention to the curly (nonwhite) locks of Greco-Roman statuary versus the straight hair of Winckelmann and Goethe, whom the artist calls “scholars of Whiteness.” This inquisition neither casts judgment nor blames any one voice, but rather shares insights and findings, mirroring the apparent objectivity with which “whiteness scholars” have presented their theories.

This line of questioning was further followed in Jennifer Chan’s algorithm-driven work Aryan Recognition Tool, 2022. At a small desk against a wall, visitors could have their faces scanned. Machine-learning facial recognition software, using Google’s infamous FaceNet, then attempted to determine how Aryan they were, matching their appearance to a data set of Nazi visages, including those of SS commanders, concentration-camp guards, and killing squads. In a shrewd reversal, Chan exploits the racial bias of artificial intelligence technology to turn the debunked field of phrenology against its Nazi practitioners, allowing us to see the Aryan in everyone.

In White Man’s Burden, 2022, Deanna Bowen looked at what is in a name—most disturbingly that of T. C. Douglas, inscribed on the building which houses the gallery. Historical oil paintings from the MacKenzie’s collection were shown along with a series of giclée prints that documented archival material, including a photograph of Douglas’s 1933 graduate thesis. In sifting through the sands of history, Bowen reveals that Douglas—once voted the Greatest Canadian, as the so-called Father of Medicare, in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contest—had written his master’s thesis on “the problems of the subnormal family,” which pleaded a case for eugenics. Bowen’s discovery highlights how figures such as Douglas have shaped Canadian culture, their influence profoundly altering national mythology. Crowded together on the wall, the paintings riffed on the display strategies of a European salon: Whose work gets to be shown in this way?

The exhibition reached an overwhelming crescendo with Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, 2018. Here, white identity is depicted in its many shades: befuddling, horrific, gleeful, filled with hate. Jafa’s fast juxtapositions of found and original footage arrange a prism of whiteness, seemingly roasting it while reveling uncomfortably in its deep complexity. A clip showing cybergoths dancing under a bridge to rapper Future’s 2017 song “Mask Off” as part of an internet challenge conjures sheer hilarity and brings back the question, What is white? Viewers were left to draw their own conclusions to this open question, one with no defined answer.