IN THE STUDIO: Pae White Keeps Her Curiosity for Materials in Check

Pae White
(Kevin Scanlon)

When Pae White was invited to prepare a series of shows at the Vienna Museum für Angewandte Kunst, home to legendary holdings by Vienna Secessionists, she found herself drawn not to the works of Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffmann but to a variety of anonymous objects from the turn of the last century. Several made it into “Others,” her reinstallation of the permanent collections that seeks to draw attention away from period masterpieces. After that show debuted last fall, White’s attention kept returning to a group of painted-wood toys that had likely never made it out of MAK’s storage rooms. To celebrate these objects, which she freely describes as of “ambiguous value,” she reimagined nine as pieces in a chess set and sent pictures to her worldwide network of collaborators for interpretation and fabrication.

Describing the chess project one drizzly afternoon in her temporary studio, she starts pulling boxes from under a large central worktable, and her usually considered speech quickens with enthusiasm. “This is from Ethiopia,” she says, unpacking talismans of gritty found objects held together with wire. “From China, I’m having a set done like toys from McDonald’s. A company here in Long Beach is doing a promotional toy version. The most amazing ones just came in. I’ve worked with these people in Lithuania for many years, and they don’t speak any English. These are porcelain and platinum with a gold glaze. I was just speechless when I saw them, they’re so beautiful.” When we met, she had commissioned eight sets, including ones in ceramic from Mexico and wood from Germany, and was so delighted with the results she was considering enlisting others in the project.


Some 14 different chess sets will go on display in October at MAK, along with one of her monumental tapestries, this one depicting digital debris. The show will be small compared to a pair of recent midcareer surveys—“Material Mutters,” which traveled from Toronto’s Power Plant in2010 to site Santa Fe in 2011, and “In Love with Tomorrow,” on view at the Langen Foundation near Düsseldorf through July 7. Still, the works being prepared for MAK may well come as close as possible to summing up White’s all-embracing and relentlessly experimental practice.

The artist’s desire to render the same concepts in various media, simply to see what will turn out, attests to her deep curiosity about materials. And her decision to hand production to expert craftspeople with limited instructions demonstrates her embrace of chance. Her choice to represent the results as chess sets, rather than objets, reveals her longtime interest in blurring the border between design and art. And in her selection of those toys as subject matter, we can see White as champion of the overlooked, the undervalued, and the ephemeral, a role that has become her signature in the art world and, increasingly, with a broader public.

White grew up not far from the temporary studio that occupies the garage of the hilltop home, just north of downtown Los Angeles, that her architect husband, Tom Marble, designed and built in 2004. As a child she attended art classes at the Pasadena Museum of Art; by high school she was taking life drawing courses which she continued at Scripps College, about 30 minutes inland. “I don’t even know how many hundreds and hundreds of hours of that I practiced and never enjoyed it,” she recalls. “Then I took this mixed-media class, and all of a sudden it just opened up everything. It was total chaos. That was probably the first time I started feeling like there was potential in everything.”

Following graduation, she returned to Pasadena to pursue her MFA at the Art Center College of Design, then known for its design program. “It was a great time at the school because they had a fine-art department the administration never really expected to bring in any money. There were maybe 12 students,” she says. “But it just so happened these great people were teaching there: Steven Parrino and Mike Kelley. It was completely under the radar, so we could deter-mine the department’s direction. We felt equal with the faculty.”

After earning her master’s degree in 1991, White worked as Kelley’s studio assistant while taking steps toward a career in film and television. “I liked that you would work very hard for three months, and then you would have time to do your own thing,” she says. But within a few years she realized she would need to make a choice. In 1995 she incorporated much of the work she had done for a Gregg Araki movie into a show called “Summer Work” at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, in Santa Monica, and stopped taking art direction jobs.

The decision was based on time management rather than the hierarchies of commercial versus fine art. Through the 1990s she experimented with publication design, initially for museum exhibitions by her then boyfriend Jorge Pardo. White first worked with her longtime gallerist Brian Butler, of Los Angeles’s 1301PE, on a book and public sculpture that Wilhelm Schürmann commissioned for “The End of the Avant-Garde: Art as Service,” a 1995 exhibition at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, in Munich. She designed the benefit auction catalogue for the nonprofit lace (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) in 1998, the year she had her first solo show with Greengrassi, which continues to represent her in London. The catalogue she created in 2000 for the Moderna Museet’s “What If: Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design,” in Stockholm, is a box of paper elements that refer to the work of her colleagues in the show.

That project caught the attention of Gregory Burke, curator of White’s Power Plant show, who at that time was the director of a regional museum in New Zealand, where he offered her a residency. “She was really pushing the potential of the print medium,” Burke remembers of her work on the catalogue. “For her it is not simply about reproducing work. We wrangled with the printer for weeks. She is absolutely compelled by the process.”

That same compulsion continues to guide White in all facets of her work. “I love the R&D,” she says at one point when explaining how she used a laser in one corner of her studio to etch paper coated with layers of color. “I have all of these tests of what results I get with changes in the energy, the power, the speed, the thickness of the material.” The ultimate results of these experiments are a series of drawings the artist dubbed “Phosphenes” for their attempt to capture the sense, if not the exact look, of those fluttering specks of light that appear when you rub your eyes.

White’s studio is littered with the outcomes of tests in other media as well. There are countless garish swatches from the company in Belgium that uses digital looms to weave her large-scale tapestries memorializing wisps of smoke (as seen in the 2010 Whitney Biennial) or crumpled pieces of foil (on display as the proscenium curtain at the Oslo Opera House). She made a point of using cotton and polyester thread, enjoying the contrast between the common material and the heroic proportions of her creations, as well as the alchemy involved in using its dullness to mimic the look of shiny metal or ethereal vapor. But when she began to tire of the series, she enlivened the process by asking her collaborators to include metallic thread in the mix. Currently, tests are being run to compare various patterns and textures, find ideal densities, and map color combinations, and she will use it in the MAK tapestry.

If the primary goal of White’s art is to confound viewer expectations and get us to focus on the ordinary by giving the ephemeral permanence, by using humble materials to create grandeur, and by undermining the heroic with the playful, she is no less contrarian in the face of the market. Despite frequent use of machines in her production, the artist seldom issues works in editions, preferring to create variants that grant her more room for experimentation. This past May at a Frieze New York booth cosponsored by Greengrassi, Milan’s Kaufmann Repetto, and Andrew Kreps Gallery of New York—a city where White has not shown in a gallery for 15 years—artworks spanning more than a decade of the artist’s career were on view, including Sick Amour, 2009–11, an autumnal accumulation of leaves handcrafted from canvas, metal, and soot, and “Briquettes and Support,” a 2003 series of cast-iron grilles in shapes reminiscent of kitschy tabletop animal figurines blown up to several feet high. The oldest work was Goodnight Moon, 2000, consisting of 49 hand-blown, mirrored glass bricks arrayed in a straight line where the floor and a wall met; earlier versions with different numbers of elements were meant to be arranged differently. While White regularly creates portable work for gallery shows and fairs—several laser-cut drawings from “Phosphenes” and a different series were seen in the booths of International Art Objects and Kaufmann Repetto at Independent earlier this spring—when it comes to museum installations and commissions, the artist takes site specificity very seriously. As she was researching the holdings of MAK for her intervention, she was asked by a curator to create a work for an exhibition in a remote Turkish town. After learning more about the location of the show, she had fabric printed using a 1903 pattern she found at MAK, but with colors drawn from a recent prediction of the season’s trendiest hues. Then she had the fabric displayed and sold just as any other fabric would be in the booth of a merchant at the local market.

“It was in Mardin, Turkey, very close to Syria,” White explains. “I just felt like that’s the kind of community that doesn’t necessarily want an assault from some sort of extreme, disconnected artwork. I want it to be more stealth, to be a part of that community.” Similarly, her submission for the 2007 Münster Sculpture Projects was a marzipan version of a soft taco, made by local pastry chefs and sold at a local shop. “It was really a way to have the pastry shop be a site,” she says. “I love going to someplace in Germany or Austria where they have a classic dish, and I have no idea what it is, but I find a way to merge my work with it.” This ability to integrate local stories into her vision is just as important when she is working on a grand scale. For “Making Worlds,” the 2009 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum, White took over a decaying, 13th-century open space. She installed a permeable ceiling of colored rope pierced in various places by chandeliers that had been coated in birdseed. She invited local singers who practice an ancient style reminiscent of birdsong to perform. In an interview at the time, she described them as “something of a raw material of the region.”

Increasingly, White finds herself taking on such large-scale projects, often public commissions. She is currently producing one from miles of brightly colored fiberglass tubing at the Los Angeles airport. For a London tube station, she is creating a vast neon light she describes as an amplification of the lamps used to treat seasonal affective disorder. Yet she feels ambivalent about becoming consumed by these projects. “I love developing these things,” she says, “but then when you have to get down to insurance and legal stuff, contracts, it’s a different process. And there is so little room for the element of chance with these public pieces.”

Perhaps that drive to stumble across something unexpected, to revel in the unpredictable is what is at the heart of her creations, both large and small. As she said of her Venice installation, “what’s interesting to me is that you can make a world in a very small gesture and you can make a world in a very huge gesture.” 

This article was published in the July 2013 issue of Art+Auction.

To see images, click on the slideshow.