‘A re-negotiation with Modernism’ – David Ben White at l’étrangère

Inside Outside at  l’étrangère presents a new body of work encompassing painting and sculpture by the British artist, David Ben White.

Absorbed within the language and aspirations of modernist architecture, design and art, White’s paintings and sculptures disrupt the self-enclosed logic of this prescriptive legacy through a subversion of its objects and spaces. For his first exhibition at l’étrangère, White will treat the spaces of the gallery as subjects to be reinterpreted; the homogenous model of the white cube is reformed via signifiers of a familiar, domestic interior. Upon entering the gallery, a constructed environment comprising painting, sculpture and vinyl installation draws the viewer into a re-configuration of the relationship between gallery, artwork and spectator, one that gestures towards an interior design logic.

I had the chance to speak with David about his artistic practice and forthcoming exhibition.

David Ben White, Installation view, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Installation view, 2015 | © David Ben White, Photo: Angelo Plantamura. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

How did you become involved in creating art / was there a specific moment that you decided to pursue it as a career?

I’ve always loved art. My gran was a very strong art lover and was also a strong believer in modernism; she was an architect back in the 1930’s and her commitment to modernism was complete. I was a musician for a long time and when I stopped making music I took time out. I lived on a kibbutz and travelled across Europe in a van. When I read my journals from the trip many years later, it struck me that it was all about art. It’s clear to me that I’ve actually been fascinated by the problems of art for a long time, particularly the problems of how to deal with this modernist legacy; but I didn’t start painting until 15 years ago. Since then I’ve been at Central St Martins where I did my BA and then at Chelsea School of Art where I did my MA. It was always there, but it was discovering it and making it the centre that was a relatively late thing. Now I’m absolutely within it – as soon as I made that decision it was total and absolute commitment and once that happened I felt I had a vocation and made sense as a human being.

Inside Outside treats the spaces in the gallery as subjects to be reinterpreted; why and how have you attempted to re-configure the gallery space?

I’ve written quite a lot about feelings or responses to the predominant dominance of the modernist white cube space. ‘Inside The White Cube’ is a fundamental text that I think is more significant now, than when it was published in the mid 70s; but the point it brings is this idea of a dominant force and I always think that when you’re talking about a dominant force you have to question why and how it has achieved that domination. Historically there are some very interesting texts that I’ve read, a brilliant one called ‘The Past’s Future’ on the development of MoMA in NY and the way in which the gallery space has evolved since the 1930s when it was designed. MoMA was really the archetypal white cube environment that every gallery around the world aspired to copy, and what happened was it became totally institutional. So once the white cube wasn’t just an institutional space, but also a public gallery space, it became the context in which the new in art was experienced.

Essentially what I’m interested in is that most artworks sit surrounded by white, the lighting on them gives them a crystal clarity of intensity, but they’re surrounded by a whiteness which gives them a fetishised isolation. In that fetishised isolation what happens to me is that it seems completely cut off from life, it becomes something other, rather than an extension of my life out in the world. When we walk into the space, we understand and recognise that the space has its own power, and in that moment we understand that the power of the artwork also confers on the space that power. It is sort of a conversation between power and power. I’m interested in questioning that dominating patriarchal force, as I do think it’s a patriarchal force; it is something that connects back to institutional systems that unfortunately reflect a male order. If you think about most of the architects who have designed these spaces they have predominately been men, and for me what’s important is starting to put the private spirit back into the public spirit.

David Ben White, Inside Outside 10, 2015, © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Inside Outside 10, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

Inside Outside includes painting, sculpture and vinyl installation – how do they relate and work together in the space?

What is interesting for me about the paintings in the show is that they come out of this relationship to a personal space that is actually relatively impersonal. When modernist houses were constructed in the 1930s they were constructed in order to break from the past, so the modernist house from the past was seen as a sort of a shell. Walter Benjamin talks about it being in terms of a shell or like a case which incorporates and encapsulates the individual surrounded by a sort of velvet, a mummifying space; and he says that essentially ‘where the house ends Le Corbusier begins’. So there’s this problem about the house as an interior domestic environment within the modernist structure, because it reflects a personal space and a space that has this historical problem which connects to the idea of a refuge. Modernism wanted to totally destroy that idea of refuge and make it much more of a public space.

So the plate glass window was a mode of addressing the private and making a sort of public / private [space]. What I really found interesting about it, as a focus for the show, was that it could operate as a metaphorical space as well as a literal space, it could operate as an idea rather than as an actuality. Going back to the white cube and in particular Inside Outside, what I’m interested in is connecting painting more to a sense of design than to a sense of painting’s history. Painting’s history to me is one of the areas of painting that seems problematic – in my opinion it’s too insular and self-involved. So with all of these paintings they have this partial framing system on all of them which makes them open and closed at the same moment, then once the vinyl is attached to the walls it appropriates the language of the framing onto the wall, so the wall becomes an extension of the language of the painting, and in that moment the wall and the painting are fused, which therefore attempts to break that fetishised isolation.

David Ben White, Installation View, © David Ben White
David Ben White, Installation View, Chelsea 10, Chelsea College of Art and Design, 2015 | © David Ben White Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Fabrication of Pleasure 42, 2014, © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Fabrication of Pleasure 42, 2014 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David, Ben White, Inside Outside 16, 2015, © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David, Ben White, Inside Outside 16, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

Inside Outside includes a series of portraits of modernist female artists, designers and architects, most of whom were overlooked at the time – to what extent do these paintings represent one of Modernism’s great contradictions that while it stood for everything progressive, it was, paradoxically, chauvinistic?

The many female figures who completely committed themselves to the continuation of the ideology of modernism, were fundamentally ignored. They were ignored by the galleries who represented their partners, by the institutions who were exhibiting their partners, by the designers / companies that were making their partners designs. It is unfortunately a very powerful story of a continuation of a patriarchal force, even though modernism set out to create a utopian environment in which women and men were equal. When I started to research the project, what I saw so clearly through reading Ulrike Müller’s book on the Bauhaus women and Griselda Pollock’s text ‘The Missing Future’ (in which she talks about the MoMA collection not having any female modernists in its collection for many years) was that what you’re looking is essentially an institutional structure which almost completely ignored a central part of modernism’s power. This power was driven by women and articulated in incredible ways that were fundamentally ignored. ‘The Personification Of An Ideal‘ is an on-going series of portraits of women, but they don’t operate as portraits, they operate more as a set of questions about power, the grid as a structure was implicit to modernist thinking.

David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Gunta), 2014 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Gunta), 2014 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Howardina), 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Howardina), 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

A recurring motif throughout the Inside Outside series of paintings is the use of the grid as a central matrix, however this seems to act as a carrier for further destabilisation – can you say more about the role of the grid?

The grid motif connects very strongly to Rosalind Krauss’s seminal text on the ‘grid’, which claimed that ‘the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art’. This idea of the grid is very much behind the thinking of the recent work, but the grid itself manifests in a very strong way, particularly in ‘The Personification Of An Ideal’ series with its imposition on the face.

David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Margarete), 2014 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, The Personification of an Ideal (Margarete), 2014 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

Inside Outside seems to question / subvert the orthodoxy of the complete modernist ‘lifestyle package’ – when and why did these ideas become an important part of your work?

If you think about modernism’s history, modernism and photography came about roughly at the same time. The relationship between the photograph of the space and the idea of developing the language of modernist design was absolutely interconnected. If you think about the photographs of modernist houses from the 1930s they’re absolutely extraordinary. Modernist designers understood the power of the photograph and the power of what photography would mean, so in that sense it was very ahead of its time; but in the same moment it articulated very clearly a power because it was basically making these photographs in order to fulfill, or to promulgate, its own ideology.

So we’re looking at a photograph from 1931 (A Mies van der Rohe design). It’s really interesting because it’s so modern, so sexy, but it’s also so bleak. In another image the ‘PE teachers house’ in Berlin two women are resting after they have been dancing or doing physical exercise, the record player in the foreground is significant. What’s interesting about the record player’s presence is that it is very much of its time. But what has happened is we now come to this photograph and we see the record player looking totally antiquated, but the house is still looking like a spaceship! That is what’s so interesting, it’s such a break from the past and I love that, I’m a huge fan; but at the same time I’m aware that it had to have the language of modernism. The record player suddenly seems so quaint and wrong, that’s what is fascinating, as soon as you have something wrong in the ingredients it stands out, it appears to me that you immediately spot the problem area. The modernist interior was very knowing of its own photogenic quality, of its own complete sense of itself as an entity, completely pushing out most of the alien problems which connected back to the past, history, tradition; it was a space that absolutely advertised the idea of the future.

David Ben White, Inside Outside 9, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Inside Outside 9, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

Going back to the role of women in the show and in modernism in general, how else do they manifest themselves in your work?

There are two paintings in the show that are following the same concept, the female sculptural form sitting in these spaces. They are connected to an interesting text by Penelope Curtis where she talks about Mies van der Rohe in a sense using the female sculptural form as a way of setting off the architectural experience. In the design images you suddenly understand, here you have this female torso that’s almost a female figure, something that connects back to a sort of Arcadian imagery. You think about the late Cezanne bathers, the sort of form within space, but it’s articulating the ideology of breaking with tradition while connecting to tradition at the same moment. I’m interested in the way in which these female figures are objectified sculptures made by men, sexualized, but also they are conveying this idea of a ‘modern arcadia’; what does this modern arcadia mean and how does it operate?

Inside Outside is absolutely aimed at this idea, that the women can be available but they are available as objectified sculptures that sit within the space, they are purely sexualised, infantile, projections. It’s almost like we have all been shopping at the same shop and suddenly somebody’s starting to go, ‘you know what this shop has got really bad karma, there’s a lot of stuff here that it’s selling itself on which is actually slightly cheesy’. I think we haven’t questioned it because the space has been so institutional, it’s almost like, how do you deal with something which is so embedded in the status quo.

David Ben White, Inside Outside 19, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Inside Outside 19, 2015 | © David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

How would you say Modernism functions in our contemporary setting / society?

If we want to bring this now into a contemporary measure then we have to think about the language of modernism and the use of plate glass windows within corporate industry. The whole mind-frame of the banks, the outcome of this mind-frame, is an outcome of this modernist ideology. The fact of the matter is the architects who designed these spaces understood that through this framing device, we became rulers of the world. If you listen to Corbusier he is saying – we look out on a world that is under our control, that we have some sense of control over what we see. When Mies van der Rohe talks about his views through the window, he is talking about nature being more beautiful through the window, so you understand the window as a framing device is a very powerful implicit part of the dominance of modernism; it produces in the viewer a new form of nexus that they are within and without at the same time. So the power that the viewer has in terms of controlling the interior space and that modernist notion of everything in connection suddenly has moved outside; therefore Inside Outside operates on a number of different levels. It is trying to approach the idea that female modernists were central to the development of modernism but were completely pushed out. Next is the experience of the domestic individual within the corporate space – suddenly you had a new way of thinking about an interior and exterior space and how they interconnected which was a completely new break, and in the same moment how do we now think about modernism and how do we now start to realise that we are always inside and outside at the same moment?

Modernism surrounds us – we have this idea that we’re outside of modernism, which is completely wrong. In a way what I’m hoping to achieve with this show is to start a conversation, a re-negotiation with modernism. There is an element of invisibility now we are so embedded in modernism, and in a way the whole idea of Inside Outside as a title is calling into question where we stand now. So actually it’s a direct statement about how we deal with something and the logic of its consequences, when in fact the logic of its consequences is so powerful. In a way what excited me about the work is trying to find a way of connecting to the language and a way of unsettling the language at the same moment, so everything is about connection and unsettling, and that is the whole concept of Inside Outside.

David Ben White, Fabrication of Pleasure 40, 2014 |© David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère
David Ben White, Fabrication of Pleasure 40, 2014 |© David Ben White. Courtesy the artist and l’étrangère

– Harry Dougall

David Ben White, Inside Outside is on view at l’étrangère, 30 October – 5 December 2015, 44a Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PD, Admission: FREE

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