The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

jamestown arts center blanc de blanc

Artist Kevin Gilmore of Rhode Island submitted “Monument,” a work of acrylic and collage on canvas, to Jamestown Art Center’s “Blanc de Blanc” exhibit.

What is it about total whiteness that holds our attention? The Beatles’ named an album after it. Kundalini yoginis only wear it, believing it to be a symbol of higher consciousness. Modern minimalists design their interiors with it. And then there’s 99 percent of Wall Street employees.

Filippone Lana_Bloom

Lana Filippone of Canada produced “Bloom” from sculpted and cast porcelain clay, antique fired decals, and 24-karat gold.

Ok, that last one’s a joke, but since the early 20th century, the art world has also been, from time to time, obsessed with the idea of white-on-white art. The trend began with the then groundbreaking work of Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, who blew the minds of viewers (and perturbed critics) with White on White in 1918. Later, Robert Rauschenberg famously painted White Painting, in 1951 – literally house paint on panels. Think it was joke? Sotheby’s laughed all the way to the bank when the painting sold for $51 million in 2014.

Amanda Fenlon oil painting monochrome

Amanda Fenlon plays with monochrome tonality in her oil painting “White on White Islands.”

One might ask what is so spectacular about a white-on-white painting, the kind, seemingly, that almost any child could paint. As a writer who sometimes covers minimalist architecture and design, and I can tell you these spaces are frequently the ones that keep me thinking the longest. At first blush they may appear simplistic and lacking in detail – sometimes even boring. But as the mind begins to wander through a space with subtle tonal shifts and streamlined reveals, it becomes wonderfully obviously that these spaces are often more complex – even in all their reservedness – than their busy peers.

Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, best known for her sometimes ghostly designs in the 1990s, often draws the viewer’s attention to negative space. And think of any uber-modern design magazine you’ve seen lately – tons of white space, right?

Jessica Palmer of the UK made “Connect the Dots” from cut paper.

Jessica Palmer of the UK made “Connect the Dots” from cut paper.

What gives? “White has a tendency to make things visible,” said Rauschenberg of the trend. “With white, you can see more of a nuance; you can see more.”

Maybe when we’re severed from the World of Too Much, we’re forced to reconsider our relationship to it. Or without it. Stripped of too much choice, these spaces, like predominantly white works of art, leave a void not of thought but of the total opposite – they leave us space to think. Whiteness reveals absence and the spaces we cannot define. That can seem ridiculous, maybe even scary. Or it could be a relief.

jamestown arts center blanc de blanc

Joan Hall’s “Fading Forest/Warming Sea,” made from plastic and handmade paper, appears as a cautionary tale.

To decide for yourself, you’ll want to head to the Jamestown Arts Center. The organization has selected 37 artists from New England, New York, Texas, Great Britain, and Canada to exhibit their white and monotone works in Blanc de Blanc, an exhibit that opens on Friday, July 1 in conjunction with its annual fundraiser of the same name. Employing a diverse list of media – from painting to porcelain, glass, steel, and molded Lexan – most of the pieces were made specifically for the show.

Despite the exhibit’s subject matter (and the requested party dress code – yes, of course, white), the soiree promises to be a colorful evening. A curator’s talk begins at 5 p.m. to be followed by a raw bar, dancing, and a live auction. All 37 of the works on display will also be for sale, starting at $350.

Don’t feel obligated to remain a spectator or consumer only, though. The point of an art space is to inspire, after all. As Rauschenberg himself once said of his own seemingly simple works, “Want one? Paint one.” But if painting and partying aren’t your thing, don’t worry; the exhibit will be on display through August 20, giving you plenty of time to stare into the negative space.

Cynthia Zinser onions oil painting

Cynthia Zinser of Connecticut plays with more traditional forms in “Three Onions,” an oil painting on linen board.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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