Plastic Classicism

Plastic Meets Instagram at Anthony White’s Exhibition

The Greg Kucera Gallery show finds the young artist in elated conversation with art history.

By Stefan Milne December 18, 2018 Published in the January/February 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Anthony White in his Central District studio.

Image: Amber Fouts

From across the gallery, you notice a glut of color—beige, pink, orange, black. Approach and objects emerge: a Mary prayer candle; a bottle of Drano; pink, rhinestone-encrusted Gucci glasses; a Razor phone; a Royal Pine air freshener; a Jolly Rancher; an AmEx gold card; a safety razor. Then textural details: the blood smudging that safety razor, its handle jutting from an ornate tea cup. Get closer. The surface appears corrugated, like beadwork or gleaming embroidery.

The Recipe, a 34-by-48-inch panel by Anthony White, currently on display at Greg Kucera Gallery, will be in White’s January exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors.

White makes his “paintings” with a small machine, about the size and shape of an electric toothbrush. It feeds and heats strands of colored polylactic acid (PLA), a type of plastic. He compares the time-intensive process to using a tattoo gun. When he was 14 and living in Arizona, White became enamored of Kat Von D, a tattoo artist on reality TV show LA Ink. “My parents took me to her shop,” he says. “She was creating these super realistic portraits and had this amazing skill in filigree and script.” His parents gave him a tattoo machine when he was 15 and his aunt (“my young aunt”) let him make his first attempt on her ankle, tiny, shaky-lined icons—a heart, a star, a diamond. After that he practiced on his dad.

White came to Seattle in 2014, enrolled at Cornish College of the Arts, worked with steel, polyurethane, resin, plaster, until in late 2017 he discovered the plastic technique. Before his April 2018 BFA exhibition, he emailed Greg Kucera, who owns the eponymous Pioneer Square gallery, asking him to attend the show. White didn’t see him at the opening and shrugged it off. Kucera has been a mainstay in the Seattle art scene for over 40 years, after all, and White heard from friends that the gallery never signed artists right out of school.

Kucera caught the show later and was impressed and “sort of repelled by the paintings. Sometimes when that happens, you should pay attention, because it means something.”

He stuck around and his appreciation deepened. “You can’t separate [White] from Warhol or Lichtenstein and their pop sensibility,” he says. But he also saw echoes of vanitas (vanity) paintings, seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes that vaunted wealthy lifestyles, spreads of jewels and food—oysters, grapes, citrus, maybe a dead pheasant. Kucera pointed to White’s The Recipe: “This is simply a different generation.”

White showed four works at Kucera’s booth at Seattle Art Fair. All sold. Ten days later, White posted on Instagram that he’d signed with the gallery. January’s exhibit is his first show there—one of 25 exhibitions he’s been involved with over the past year, including solo shows at the Factory and Glass Box and group popups he curates called While Supplies Last. In February he’ll mastermind a group show at Mount Analogue gallery called Ultralight Beams which will include Brandon Lipchik, Super Future Kid, and Trey Abdella. White calls the show’s dominant aesthetic “post-analog,” mass-produced imagery rendered with human hands. That’s unsurprising since technology is central to his own art. 

The Recipe, part of White’s still life series.

Vanitas painters frequently included symbols of mortality—candles, clocks, skulls. While White sneaks skulls into his still lifes (see a pair in the glasses lenses in The Recipe), his mortal objects skew technological. VHS tapes, CDs, antiquated phones, broken phones. Phones, in fact, are a sort of nexus in his work. They’re all over in the still lifes and in his selfie series, where he takes Instagram images, largely men posing in mirrors—young, shirtless, faces eclipsed by phones—and places them before filigreed wallpapers, in gilded frames. Often White then covers the mirror with what he calls “real life shit”: graffiti, stickers, a lipstick swipe. Kucera compares them to Kehinde Wiley’s paintings. Both artists give marginalized figures—through race, class, sexual orientation—the classical portrait treatment.

Yet in the meeting of subject (Instagram) and medium (plastic) White finds something his own. The selfie is a rebuttal against historical portraiture. If you have a phone, you can snap one, so elitism melts. But it’s also the portrait’s modern iteration. The impulse is the same: to be seen. And you can, with light and angle and filters as adulatory as a commissioned painter’s brush, control how you’re seen. “I find it really fun and important to highlight the people around me,” White says, “and do that with something super cheap and pretty.” Since one panel takes 100 hours or more to complete, he can refute that cheapness. He meets his subjects’ emotional reach (to display an ideal self) in raw work ethic, lifts them to the place the selfie yearns toward but can’t grasp.

The selfie is too easy, too cheap. The images erase themselves in ubiquity. Here though, on the walls of one of the more revered galleries in the city, wrought painstakingly in plastic, shining with human contradiction, White’s subjects can be truly seen.

► Smoke and Mirrors, Jan 3–Feb 16, Greg Kucera Gallery, free

► Ultralight Beams, Feb 7–28, Mount Analogue, free

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