LA Expanded

White on White

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

A screenshot of Jean Harlow in her bedroom in Dinner at Eight

David Batchelor, in his exquisite little pink book Chromophobia, describes a white he encountered on the walls of the home of an “Anglo-American art collector” he visited in the 1990s. He wrote, “There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and this is that kind of white. . . This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything and nothing escaped.” Batchelor goes on to wonder, could we hold the architect who designed this home responsible? This architect wanted to “strip bare and to make pure,” to construct minimal, “very direct” buildings in which there was “’no possibility of lying’ because they are ‘just what they are’.” Says  Batchelor, “He was lying of course, telling big white lies. . .” That terrifying sort of white does not free anything or anyone up to be themselves, though it might put their features and flaws into sharp relief.

View of the Mary Corse installation at Ace Gallery.

I am thinking of white because of two exhibitions I saw last week. The first, Billy + Jean by Margaret Haines and Orlando Tirado, in the L.A. Koreatown space Commonwealth & Council, announces itself with a white-on-white work hung in a white-walled corridor which may have been a closet once (Commonwealth & Council is upstairs in an old office complex and, like in many old building, it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what nooks and crannies in the space were originally meant for). This work lists, in white lettering, all the whites that appeared in Jean Harlow’s bedroom in Dinner at Eight (1933), the bedroom in which the starlet, dressed in a shiny white robe, called Wallace Beery a “dumb bunny.” That bedroom is not the least bit austere. But it is full of white. According to Haines and  Tirado, these were the whites in Harlow’s bedroom:
OYSTER WHITE
LACQUER WHITE ORNAMENTED IN DEAD CHALK WHITE
CREAM WHITE
TRANSLUSCENT ALABASTER-WHITE
MILK WHITE
METALLIC WHITE
WARM WHITE
IVORY-WHITE IN THE TAFFETA

Altogether, these whites seem indulgent — there are too many of them for the whiteness to feel at all minimal. The show Billy + Jean, its title from a 1968 Michael McClure play in which Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid become entangled, sprawls out from there, with a shrink-wrapped, rectangular amalgam of clothing and cardboard and books and wigs on the floor, and against the far wall a found object trellis. The trellis is also painted white, but not perfectly and not with a perfect white shade. This white is more like a primer, sort of gritty and warmer than cold.

Mary Corse, "Untitled," 2011. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas.

The second instance of white-on-white art I saw this week was at Ace Gallery L.A. , that labyrinthine space on the second floor of the Wilshire Tower that has far more confusing crannies than Commonwealth & Council does. In her recent paintings, Mary Corse mixed glass microspheres in white acrylic paint, and then painted strips of differently glassy white down her canvases. This means texture and shimmer vary slightly within each painting.

I have seen Corse’s all-white paintings at Ace before, but in bigger, squarer galleries. Right now, they hang in a curved room at the far eastern end of the gallery. A vintage window with white-tinted glass curves around in the middle of the room, and the track lighting hits the paintings in just the right places. If you walk around the room clockwise, staying about a few feet away from the wall, you’ll see the stripes of white on the canvas disappear completely, then reappear, then start to explicitly shine, then fade away again. I like that white could give you a multitude of experiences and that the idea of white as purifying and austere is something we’ve imposed on it.

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