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March 23 - July 6, 2003 at Laguna Art Museum, Orange County

by Jeanne S.M. Willette
with Bill Lasarow

Contrary to popular opinion, Orange County is not Orange. It is White. Or, at least, the southern half is (lily-)white, and South Orange County is the location of the Laguna Art Museum, tucked away in one of the most expensive, elite, exclusive, and predominantly white enclaves in Southern California. The curator of this museum, Tyler Stallings thus displays uncommon courage in mounting an exhibition called Whiteness, a Wayward Construction, specifically designed to call attention to the cultural condition of being White and it’s attendant advantages. Far from being a politically neutral formal category, Whiteness is here considered, according to Stallings, as "an ideology of power." Those who wear white (skin) are inherently and unavoidably unaware that they have gone through life clad in the shining armor of acceptance, privilege, dominance, and power. The customs and beliefs of whiteness become a shared and inhaled identity, linking millions who have nothing else in common but power embedded in skin color. The more whiteness exists as an unseen standard, the more powerful it becomes.

Andres Serrano, "The Interpretation of Dreams (White Nigger)," 2001, cibachrome/ silicone/plexiglas/wood frame, 60 x 49 1/2".

James Casebere, "The Prison at Cherry Hill," from the Prison series, 1993, reversal dye-destruction gelatin print, 40 x 30".

Mark Steven Greenfield, "Uncle,"
2001, Iris print, 34 x 23".

Kara Walker, "Another Fine Mess,"
1998, gouache on paper, 62 x 101".
Whiteness, Stallings explains, is "wayward" because the concept is malleable and thus "ungovernable." He could have also added, but lets the art included in Whiteness make the point for him, that whiteness is also artificial, and that this condition of constructed slipperiness makes whiteness difficult to see, hard to pin down and impossible to eradicate. White is an invisible non-color and, in social practice is an unseen category. One can only attempt to point at whiteness, if only to draw an outline before it fades once again into invisibility. Whiteness also implies that which may be erased. Consider the terms "white out" and "whitewash " which imply that something is underneath (power) but it (dominance) has been covered up. For the power of whiteness to function it must be both insinuated and unexplained, like magic, like religion.

Far from being only a social topic or a political issue, whiteness is a concept uniquely suited to art, as it takes on meaning only when it is codified into visual signs. Whiteness is based upon the visual, the visible, and would make no sense without vision. To a blind person, "race" does not exist, only humanity. The construction of whiteness may be understood as a cultural act rooted in the visual. Western art has been guilty of a centuries-long historical complicity in visualizing the inferiority of dark (black) and superiority of light (white). Whiteness became freighted with floating signifiers of superiority.

For the artist who examines the issue of race in an art world that, however much it may have changed, is still predominately white, the professional risks can invite marginalization or worse. The artists here have devoted their careers to examining the representation of whiteness in terms of cultural identity and political power. The artists are mostly from California--Kim Dingle, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Millie Wilson, Mike Kelley--but the show also includes artists from other parts of the country--Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Byron Kim.

In an age of quick and easy cures for anything, Erika Rothenberg promises You Can Cure Yourself of Racism! (1987), while Mark Greenfield reminds us of the origins of illustrated racism in Uncle (2001), a series of prints about the peculiar practice of minstrels. Minstrels, whether white or black, used burnt cork to effect a "black-face" appearance as a sign to an audience that the dancer was performing "black music." The rigid demarcations between "white art" and 'black art" are re-examined by the bi-racial team of Richard Lou and Robert Sanchez (Los Anthropolocos), who use 19th century French Pointillist George Seurat's famous painting and its study of social hierarchy as a template for capturing "The Colorless Ones" on the Island of La Grande Jatte (2002).

Myrella Moses, an Afro-German artist living in Newport Beach, has long explored in her work the link between the purity of white sheets and the very impure battlefield of sexual pleasure, thus injecting the equally problematic history of gender politics into the present aesthetic arena.

Erika Rothenberg, "You Can Cure
Yourself of Racism!" 1987, a/c, 36 x 48".

Kim Dingle, "Girl Boxing (White
Girl Boxing with Shadow),
1992, oil on linen, 72 x 60".

Daniel Joseph Martinez, "I Can't Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White," 1994, printed metal museum entrance tags, special edition, 15 1/4 x 11 1/2".

The precarious "superiority" of "white trash," once a staple of Jim Crow-era politicians in America, is a direct or implied issue in works by Annalee Newitz, Matthew Wray, Gary Simmons, and Andres Serrano. Their visual discussion revolves around hierarchies of racial blends, and they call attention to persons of mixed ethnicity to track the semiotics of forbidden desire--the in-between of black and white that creates another shade, whether from love or rape or sacrifice.

The convoluted historical designation of whiteness may well shape-shift once again as this show is in progress. Although in the works for several years, Whiteness is an unexpectedly timely exhibition, particularly in the context of the upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. This politically charged event makes Whiteness a natural potential lightning rod for controversy. Curator Stallings’, not to mention the museum’s daring in gathering a prominent cross-section of California and national artists who both address issues of cultural identity and expose the apparatus of whiteness from a racial standpoint is breathtaking.

When reminded that they are empowered by the mere virtue of their whiteness, white people typically tend to react with reflexive guilt, denial, defensiveness, or alternatively with defiance. An exhibition that digs at these uncomfortable feelings will generate controversy independent of the news of the moment. This curator’s show simply does not permit the museum to remain the pure “White Cube” for transcendent art, but insists that art should be involved, engaged and, above all, contextualized within contemporary culture. Whiteness asserts this perspective in the midst of a period of change, as our society sexually mingles and socially mellows into a mélange of shades that increasingly resist categorical identity. And if California is the (non)racial future, then the bi-polar semiotics of racism will over time become non-operational. What will happen to the power of whiteness? What is the point of a black verses white dialectic when we are all crème brulée? One hopes that the art on view illuminates and contributes to this continuing evolution.