This exhibition of recent works by Los Angeles-based artist Pae White, titled “Material Mutters” and curated by Power Plant director Gregory Burke, included two projected animations, a series of works on paper and a newly commissioned fabric work, but it focused primarily on 15 of the monumental tapestries (as large as 12 by 40 feet) that White began producing in 2004. For these tapestries, White assembles landscapes of everyday materials and photographs them; then artisans, aided by computers, reproduce the digital pictures in woven form.
White’s tapestries jam-pack items of consumer culture—depicting, for example, wrapping paper, fabric swatches, food, junk mail and newspaper clippings—in flat compositions that suggest a horror vacui. Their humble subject matter stands in ironic contrast to their spectacular scale and to the heroic tradition of tapestry art—a medium rooted in sprawling medieval battle and hunting scenes. Take, for instance, Studio A—Z, MMVII #5 (2007)—one of four tapestries exhibited from a series of five—which portrays at roughly 24 by 10 feet a hoard of pumpkin seeds interspersed with apricots and highlighted by specks of steel-blue glitter.
The tapestries’ dazzling palette is as arresting as their grandiosity, particularly in the eight-work series “Skygazing” (2006). In (Skygazing #3) ursa minor, a smattering of bubble-gum pink and glossy white blobs covered with multicolored marks, representing icing-drenched animal crackers covered in sprinkles, is set against a layered backdrop of hexagonal cutouts of Yellow Pages ads. Here we have California Pop artist Wayne Thiebaud’s confectionary-counter paintings played to Wagnerian proportions.
Standing independent of the other tapestries, Still, Untitled (2010) focuses on fleeting immateriality rather than
on dense materiality. Exhibited first at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and shown here with a series of 36 related drawings, it depicts winding ringlets of white smoke in close-up against a rich black ground, offering a Mannerist-style contrast of light and dark.
The video animation Dying Oak—Elephant (2009) is based on a three-dimensional scan of a massive 800-year-old oak tree, taken using light detection technology. A swirling abstraction of geometric beads of light rising from earthy sepia tones, it hints at rather than resembles its source. By animating a dying tree, White carries out a process opposite to that of Still, Untitled, in which she “stilled” unfolding smoke curls. Both works, however, bear a tension between subject and medium, the ephemeral smoke freeze-framed in thick fabric and the sturdy oak rendered with ethereal light.
The commissioned Sea Beast (2010) seemed superfluous. The nearly 10-by-22-foot weaving, based on a photo of a tacky ’70s macramé hanging, recalls Mike Kelley’s crocheted afghans and countless other works that have subsumed home craft into high art. Indeed, “Material Mutters” itself betrayed a horror vacui in terms of exhibition planning, providing a curatorial overload that at times obscured White’s playfully engaging, ironical pairing of incompatible subject matter and medium.
Photo: Pae White: Still, Untitled, 2010, cotton and polyester tapestry, 12 by 40 feet; at the Power Plant.