Born in Philadelphia, PA, Charlie White is a contemporary artist, photographer and filmmaker whose work explores identity through perception, desire and social trends. Many of his recent projects examine capitalism, America’s obsession with youth, how we interact with media, and the transition from child to adult or male to female. White has exhibited internationally since 1999, and six monographs of his work have been published. White lives and works in Los Angeles, and holds the position of Professor of Fine Art at the University of Southern California, where he was director of their well-regarded MFA program from 2007 through 2011.
A curator at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum since 2006, Ali Subotnick organized the retrospective LLYN FOULKES, as well as Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A., and she was a co-curator for the first biennial Made in L.A. 2012. She is currently working on Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991–2015, which opens in early October. She also oversees the Hammer’s artist residency program, and has written about art and culture for publications including Frieze, Parkett, ARTnews and ArtReview, among others.
Artist Charlie White investigates American excess, identity and desire through stylized film and photography. His photographs capture the tension between perception and desire in popular media and the ensuing boredom, unease and vanity of modern survival. White’s 2014 work, Self Portrait, deconstructs the naked selfie by pairing a series of lavish tabletops against academic nudes. A mundane grid background connects these subjects psychologically and questions what it means to casually trade images of our private selves for satisfaction.
Much of White’s work studies our culture’s most idealized and complex commodity: the teenage girl. His 2008 series Girl Studies includes American Minor, a short film focused on banalities in the average teenager’s day; OMG BFF LOL, an animated film about consumerism and its loneliness; and Teen and Transgender Comparative Studies, a side-by-side observation of girls becoming women and men becoming women. His 2009 monograph American Minor is a collection drawing from various projects, taking a sociological stab into the collective consciousness that worships and markets the sexualized symbol of the innocent teenager. Formally staging his photos, White strips away the organic and exposes the fiction of presentation, leaving nothing but viewer and subject.
Charlie White talks about his work with friend Ali Subotnick, long-time curator for Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum.
Ali Subotnick: You seem to be fascinated with youth and that moment in life when one is “coming of age” or about to transition from child to adult. Other than the obvious, what about this stage interests you?
Charlie White: Yes, I do. However, I think that the “obvious” is not as obvious as we imagine it to be. I believe the reason youth grabs us is more elusive than we might think. So at the risk of being simplistic, I would start with the fact that we – the adult viewers – are no longer youthful, and it is this loss and the wisdom of what has passed in our bodies and lives that makes youth a complex meditation and continual cultural preoccupation.
AS: You also have an uncanny ability to empathize with girls on the verge of becoming women and, in turn, men or boys transitioning to female. Where does that empathy come from in a heterosexual white male?
CW: I think that transitioning is universal and that some of us remain located in a limbo of sorts – a space between forgetting and being. Now that I am a parent, I understand all of this much better in myself because I am continually identifying with my two-year-old son, paralleling my childhood mind with his. Perhaps the better answer is memory. I believe I have a very good memory, a memory fueled by emotional spaces and conditions, so I feel my past and that seems to allow me to empathize. It is a process of actualizing another person’s perception – to become a bit like them or try to, like an actor might, but for different reasons.
OMG BFF LOL
A series of colorful retro animations by Charlie White which explore the world of two teenage girls, Tara and Blakey, from their speech patterns to themes of materialism, loneliness and desire in the context of America in 2009. The videos feature a remix of the song “We Love To Shop” by hip-hop producer Boom Bip, who also goes by the name Neon Neon.
AS: Your approach seems almost anthropological, though, like you’re trying to understand and unravel the motivations and behavior of a subculture. You learned their language so deeply that your animation OMG BFF LOL sounds so authentic it’s kind of annoying. And you worked with a girl to document a year in her life – the ultimate anthropological experiment. Am I reading too much into this, or are you trying to get inside the heads of these girls?
“I think that transitioning is universal
and that some of us remain located
in a limbo of sorts –
a space between forgetting and being.”
— Charlie White
CW: Correct, I am trying to. But I believe that we are all somewhat on our way to embodying this mindset already. A mindset that is – in the case of OMG BFF LOL – late capitalism effectively forming our person, our desires and our systems of valuation. If we understood the teenage girl as an idea, as a phase of life in contemporary culture, then we begin to recognize it in ourselves and are able to see its expanding role in commercial society. In this way, we are all Tara and Blakey walking through the mall, and that is the point.
Theory of the Young-Girl
Tiqqun is a French collective of authors and activists formed in 1999. The group published Theory of the Young-Girl that same year, dissecting consumer society’s obsession with youth and sexuality, and mapping the nature of both its product and ideal, the “Young-Girl.”
One Dimensional Man
A critique of contemporary capitalism as well as the Communist USSR by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, following a pattern of social repression in both systems. Marcuse argues also that the “advanced industrial society” of capitalism creates one-dimensional individuals who are slaves to false needs and lose the ability of critical thinking.
Certainly our childhoods are extending well into our adult life (the pervasiveness of games is one example, social media habit is perhaps another), but what is less recognized is the transmutation of the “teenage girl” from a subject into a genderless and ageless aspect of our privileged western identity. I feel that Tiqqun’s Theory of the Young-Girl really captured this idea well, and that Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man offers a map for how we arrived at this condition.
A California-born actress (1964-1999) best known for her role as Kimberly Drummond on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes from 1978-1986. After leaving the show, she achieved little success in entertainment and struggled with addiction and poverty. Plato died at age 34 due to a drug overdose. See images of young Plato.
AS: One of your new projects focuses on one of these girls, the celebrity Dana Plato, and how she was represented in photographs; how she was sexualized by the male photographer and the entertainment industry. Are you being critical of the industry? Are you trying to expose the exploitation of Plato?
CW: I am really interested in the studio photographs of Dana Plato (most shot by Herb Ball) because I think they, like a series of other photographs of young female icons in the 1970s, point to something that was just beginning to happen in commercial society that would transform our ideas about youth. Unlike the puritanically-driven tabloid Hollywood that preceded it, the teen subject of the 1970s was being elevated as a sinner, a body and a flirt. To me, Plato was the most interesting of the those, being celebrated in a group which included Brooke Shields, Tatum O’Neal, Jodie Foster and Kristy McNichol. All of these young women were the subject of intense lenticular gaze, one that stared at, undressed and fetishized their very being. This style was the foundation for how we translate teen into commodity today and the template for how teens have been packaged for consumption since.
Plato differed from her cohort in that she was much younger and far less powerful than the others – her career was both limited and short. Furthermore, she was in television, not film, which afforded another kind of image – one that was less lyrical, flat and without personality. Most of the studio images were for TV Guide promos and other Network solicitation. Dana was being elevated due to a specific role on Diff’rent Strokes, which lent itself to a number of erotic narratives and national anxieties that the images played on. Dana was complicated on many levels, and the studio images of her are uniquely powerful (as well as stunning) because they unpack a period when America unabashedly “looked” at the teenage girl, while inadvertently capturing a tragic life. A life that ultimately gained nothing back from the scopophilic culture that recorded it.