THE ART OF BOB WHITE
Throughout his artistic career Bob White has pursued a very personal approach towards representation in drawing and painting. This began during his student’s days at the Slade School and continued in his many years of independent work and teaching. He utilises and reinterprets in his work the traditional canon of picture making. He belongs to a generation of artists able by training and conviction to dedicate itself to an art form that continually studies and evaluates the changing lines and physical presence of the human figure and the lights, colours and textures that animate the world of objects and materials. Bob’s representation takes the viewer into his subject’s existential sphere and cultural ambience. Drawing, the fixing and clarifying of thought and form on paper, is at the heart of his work. His teaching too had a strong basis in the joy of drawing, the handing on of a pleasurable and valuable tool currently neglected in art. The mental discipline and mastery of the craft with which he works, his creative wealth and accumulated insights, have been able to transcend rules and conventions. Working continuously neither for nor against temporary trends, he remained faithful to his vision, always ready to revise, to probe, to develop new ideas. Bob White’s oeuvre contains both his sense of balance and humanity.
I have the privilege of knowing Bob since the late 1970s. I witnessed various phases in his work, his readiness to experiment and to change. A fluent combination of highly developed skills and applied experience of life were always reflected in the qualities years of observation and critical self-assessment had given him. Commenting on the brutalisation of public life during the Thatcher / Regan years his style, up to then more impressionistic, hardened noticeably. Shafts of light cut into vaulted shadows of pictorial spaces. Heavy-boned figures, oppressed by architectural weights, were toiling to prop up breaking structures. The dogs of darkness were snapping at their heels. Hands were reaching out of the dark grasping the elusive materiality of light. I once described these images as a return to a kind of pittura metafisica that were, in contrast to the work of earlier Italian masters, timely statements about the absence of hope in a political environment devoid of rational solutions.
In the mid 1990s Bob began to create a series of paintings that seemed, seen from the distance of our days, to foreshadow that great sense of loss revealed in the 9/11 disaster and the psychological impact of a decade of wars to come. Under the title ‘Holding the Silence’ he exhibited paintings about the absence of the body, of clothes still redolent of human form and warmth. His works were reminding us of the fragility of human existence: we are born naked and leave this world naked, just wrapped in a shroud. The clothes we wear describe our passage though life, our becoming, our vulnerability and our end. Clothes that lost their usefulness turned in Bob’s paintings into objects that implied the transfiguration of the human body, crossing the threshold from a physical towards a spiritual existence. The body-shaped hulls of this series, described in stark ashen-coloured textures, are silent but articulate reminders of the tragic waste of humanity in our time.
Over the past decade Bob White continued his painterly exploration of cloth and clothing as potent carriers of embedded meanings, of individual as well as collective histories. This occupation has been stimulated and enriched by his dialogue with Lesley Millar, his partner for many years. He participated in 2012 with a wide range of new works in the exhibition ‘Cloth and Memory’ held at Salts Mill, Yorkshire, a setting full of resonances of over a hundred years of textile production. In these later paintings he turned again towards a distinctly colouristic approach. In these works one feels a meditative calm which may be due to Bob’s experience of Japanese art renewed during recent travels. Here he summarises his emotional attachment to and understanding of the metaphoric nature of textile, including also, and directly, that of the painted canvass itself. The canvasses are not only surfaces holding images; they themselves are treated as textile, impregnated with the intensity of tints and pigments. Painting in thin layers and applying pure colour in veils of washes, with yellows, orange and red shadows predominant, he imbues his images with a dreamlike lightness. Images of clothing and drapes of cloth in interior and exterior settings are being lifted from collective anonymity by airs of colour into a private, a poetic sphere. They appear from the depth of the canvass like after-images or flashes of memories.
At ease with himself, but facing the conflicts and contradictions of our times with excitable awareness, Bob continues to strive forward towards a possible completeness. Inspired by Edward Said’s thoughts about ‘Late Style’ he has been musing in lectures and conversations about the way age may influence and clarify to some degree an artist’s outlook, the view of himself as well as his art. Mature subjectivity is, in his view, the ability to reconcile the contradictory distance between disenchantment and pleasure. In a recent interview he said: “For the older artist disenchantment is a frequent companion and part of a hard-won critical edge and pleasures are to be savoured with confidence. The tension exerted by these opposites is maintained by the mature artist as an underlying challenge. – It is exciting to arrive at what is a sense of confidence; for some it comes much earlier than for others. It gradually evolves. You have to live with an optimistic tomorrowness. To be an artist is to have a sense of anticipation for what you are about to make.”
Lutz Becker, April 2013
BETWEEN CLOTH AND SKIN
"Happy paintings for me are pretty curious"
I have grown up watching Bob's dedication to the labour of art, the essential interest in his life. Until recently his hart has been part of the characteristically English search for the mark hard won, the artist's progress as he carries his burden through the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City. Now, as these increasingly lyrical, suffused drenchings of magentas and yellows demonstrate, a new light has come into his work. I remember a recent conversation on Bacon's refusal to accept the easy mark, as if the lack of pain in making art somehow negated its validity. In contrast Bob is now allowing ease to be a significant part of his art; he is letting the painting happen rather than carrying out an allotted task in the Puritan manner. Allowing the form and feeling of the figure to come through, rather than the external search for something more difficult. "Happy paintings for me are pretty curious" he said.
Certain subjects have recurred through the years, dogs for example, interestingly there are no dogs in these current works (the first title for this piece was, what no dogs?) this absence might tell us something about the lightness of being that informs these new paintings. Bob's most constant themes have been the representation of the figure, cloth and the craftsman like care for the use of materials. In these works the figures are largely in pairs, the figure and its doppelganger, rather than two separate beings. There are echoes of past figures here, either personal or part of an enormous visual vocabulary built up over the years. Ariadne from Titan's 'Bachus and Ariadne' for example appears several times, although it's the turning form of the figure rather than the narrative that interests the artist. There is a certain feel of heavy dancing about them, "dancing as foot on the earth ritual" as Bob calls it, a human movement, not a refined high cultural ritual.
Cloth has been an important subject for some time, in this case the mythic power of cloth; we are born and die in cloth and represent ourselves through it during life. In the past, images had been worked on board, but these paintings are made on cloth. The paint is worked into thin calico and washed off so that the colour does not lie, nut in the surface; it becomes the very substance it describes. Yellow is put over magenta, layered like skin or like light on drapery, yellow illuminating the fugitive figure. Bob's process of finding and releasing the form in the cloth leaves clear traces of the making of the work, there is a strong sense of the image deliberately coming through from behind. The quickly drawn line, again recently reintroduced, has a sense of pace; drawing on a wet ground not unlike a Renaissance fresco painter drawing his designs into fresh intonaco. These figures from Bob's and from art's history, Ingres, Goya, classical statuary to the High Renaissance, float in veils of pink and yellow often with their backs to us, yet never aloof or disdainful. Figures at ease painted with a surprising joy, with a sense of scale, stability and heavy footed calm. Figures involved in a weight human dance, gazed at rather than caught in a passing glance, time slowed to a thoughtful passage as these cloths appear as ancient reminders of our own physical relationship to each other and ourselves. That notion is also brought to mind as one watches him move these sheets of calico around his studio, a delicate patriarch, arms outstretched, tenderly dancing his creations to a new place in the line. Cloths made in a light filled studio surrounded by hop gardens and vineyards, the attributes of Bachus, the wooer of Ariadne, the personification of enjoyment.
Mark White. 2004
REVIEW OF CLOTH AND MEMORY
....On entering the Gallery the viewer is immediately confronted by the scale of the building as the eyes are drawn along its length. Almost simultaneously those same eyes are brought around to focus upon the source of the intense orange and red glow emanating from the walls. When painter Bob White remarks that "it is possible to feel the cloth of the past, not like a weight, but more like a breath" he refers not only to the way in which the mill still carries the sense of cloth within it, but also the effect of his paintings upon the viewer. The warm tones and subtle over-glazing render his canvases as light as breath and as intense as a long, lingering love affair. In the semi-abstractions there are garments and partial garments: indiscernible and yet known. Within the intimate folds of White's glazes and washes of color the images are caressed into being. The humor, intimacy and intensity of lovers are brought together within a space so generous that these images and moments of re-knowing alter temporality: tender moments simultaneously held and journeying forward.
The scale of Salts Mill enables White's expressions to open out and onto the viewer and each other, offering memories of memories of cloths, lovers, skins and clothing, all entwined and intertwined. White paints cloth as metaphor, matter and memory through the somatic. He breathes into the cloth and the viewer catches the movement of that veil lifted....
Extract from review of Cloth and Memory exhibition at Salts Mill, Saltaire, Yorkshire. 2012
Dr. Catherine Dormer - Journal of Cloth and Culture May 2013