There is a quiet rustling around the corner, a collective groan coming from an indeterminate distance. Somewhere at the city’s edges shuffle the reanimated hordes that plague the contemporary art world, if only by refusing to stay dead. What do these monsters look like, you ask? Brace yourselves: they look a lot like the human figure.
For those of you who share my insatiable hunger for represented human flesh, I have news for you: Cate White’s solo show at the Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco, Hello Cruel World, closes this Saturday—and with it some of the most brilliant figure painting coming out of the Bay Area. Hello Cruel World announces itself with an indelicate chuckle, the kind that precedes a messy, barefaced, and self-deprecating rant about life spent on society’s outskirts. Could there be a better representative of the vastly underappreciated genre of contemporary figure painting than Cate White?
Although figurative art seems to be making its tentative comeback in the art world, White’s work looks distinctly out of place in a pristine art gallery. Her favored materials include spray paint, glitter, and house paint, to which the lingering fumes can attest. If you give into curiosity and inspect the sides of her canvases (I’ve considered many adjectives to describe them, but I’ll settle on “grubby”) don’t be surprised to discover a strand or two of human hair. Her epic panoply of a painting, The Keys to the City + Addendum, does indeed have a small addendum fixed roughly to the side of the canvas, an artistic “whoops” that juts out like a stubborn cowlick. Another painting, Sins of the Father, is displayed on limp, unstretched canvas, as if a second thought has led to it being rescued from the bottom of a dumpster. But make no mistake: the haphazard quality to White’s work does little to disguise her artistic brilliance — in fact, it only makes it all the more thrilling.
The worlds depicted in White’s work represent a particular cross-section of America, juxtaposing backwoods hippie utopias, marginalized urban communities, and lower class households with tongue-in-cheek references to empire and the romanticized American West. In the first room of the gallery, Superheroine spoofs the traditional equestrian portrait with a shirtless woman in a trucker hat and red cape straddling a spindly mule; on the opposite wall, The Keys to the City + Addendum reworks Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda into a scene seemingly torn out of a bawdy Highlights magazine (“What’s wrong with this picture?”): depicted is a naked woman in flip-flops surrendering a set of keys (with a CVS rewards card attached to it) to a sinister, smiley-faced seventeenth century army, behind her the wildly expressive twenty-first century community she’s reluctantly handing over. Nearby, Weez in a Cell (aka “Struggle on the Rise”) depicts a black inmate reaching out of his prison cell and improbably touching the clouds above; in the next room, as the palette shifts to green depictions of rural and pastoral life, Country Lyfe exchanges prison bars for a lattice fence to depict a very different image: a black man bathes under a jerry-rigged garden hose amid the lush greenery of a backwoods Eden, his naked body concealed behind a serendipitous leaf like a prelapsarian Adam. The portrait in Country Lyfe is specific, the details intimate; portrayals like these upend habitual depictions of race, class, and the environments containing them, all with a disarming level of comfort and intimacy. One of the greatest revelations of White’s work is that all of it lands on the canvas so naturally and authentically, as if each painting is part of an earnest conversation she had over a late morning bowl of cereal.
Another revelation is the artistry of the work itself. Her various landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors are painted with a confounding balance of unpredictability and restraint, and moving your eyes over her alternately muddy and vibrant canvases is like watching a trapeze artist perform in street clothes: near-disaster is improbably turned into beauty again and again, and it never gets any less breathtaking. Her figures are cartoonish and painterly, overworked and incomplete, their wavering status between blueprint and final image making it unclear if these people who populate society’s farthest edges are on the verge of appearing or fading away. It would be far from the truth to call these paintings careful — but they are absolutely brimming with care.
A page on the Guerrero Gallery website unintentionally states that her show runs from May 13th to June “2rd”: the second? the third? the turd? (It ends June 3rd.) Even the final day of her show refuses to announce itself without a messy, humorous, confusing struggle. Something tells me that Cate White would appreciate that.