Jack White: Neo-Totems and Other Works of Art

In a recent BBC documentary on J Dilla, the deceased beatmaker’s family and fellow industry folk recount the seminal producer’s style, marked most notably by a counter-quantizing of his drum machine: a drunken mechanization, a meeting point of analog practices (the mythic process of searching through crates of records) and digitization that concurrently sounded ill-programmed (off-beat), yet intentional and on-point. This is man-made modernism, in contrast to the conventional image of crisp lines and sharp edges. So what would J Dilla’s sound look like? Jack White’s Neo-Totems, on display at the African American Art and Culture Center, come to mind.

White is a native of rural North Carolina and has taught in art programs in the American South and Northeast. He describes his work as “Abstract Impressionism”; still, much like underground or “backpack” hip hop, White’s sculptures imagine a future as much as they point to a past. In Neo Totem #11 (2009), discarded and weathered lumber lies next to mass-produced combs, nails and objects: an over four-foot piece of found wood, dusty and handled pieces of metal peeping through stains, and a not immediately visible hair pick. The objects come together, but they are slightly off, or not perfectly symmetrical. Although it might be predictable to state as much about such work, White’s sculptures are soulful.

In Neo Totem #11, the pick comb–traditionally used for black hairstyles, most notably the Afro–at once alludes to the past (the 1970s) while also making manifest the prognostic cultural phenomena of Afrocentricity and Afrofuturism. Although ancestral, the “neo” (or newness) of these sculpture are different, imagined futures. They are objects that long for an additional function, point to places outside the gallery, and make sound.

White’s drawings and sketches allude to such narratives. Framed and tucked away, Totem study I (2009) and Totem study II (2009) are the last thing one notices in the gallery space, they are so unassuming. Still, Totem study I speaks to process, chronology and place. The ink drawing includes White’s notes: “part of an old chair, found in 2008” and “from shield from Kenya.” Spiral binding ridges remain, and a sketch of a work to come. Much like his musical grandchildren, White’s Neo-Totems sample, cut, and connect.

Jack White: Neo-Totems and Other Works of Art–a Continuum is on display in the Sargent Johnson Gallery at the African American Art and Culture Center, in San Francisco, through January 12, 2012.

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