Extending the Legacy: The Political Art of Ian White
By Paul Von Blum
Many American art historians, critics, and laypersons know of the magnificent stature and powerful influence of Charles White, one of the premier African American artists of the 20th century. Thousands of appreciative viewers have been moved and enthralled by his murals, paintings, and prints. Painfully acquainted with poverty and racism, White spent his entire career promoting a critical vision highlighting the horrific struggles and poorly recognized accomplishments of his people. His images of dignity and protest have inspired a younger generation of visual artists of all ethnicities to continue in his path by adding their own unique contributions to the long tradition of artistic resistance.
An especially obvious example of Charles White's impact can be found in the life and work of his adopted son, Ian White. A gifted and accomplished young artist, he has added further luster to the large body of political art in the United States. Extending his family legacy, he joins his late father thorough his assertive commitment to a socially conscious artistic vision. He has added several stylistic innovations in his own work, all the while focusing on some of the major social and political themes of the 1990s. His remarkable capacity to express a critical perspective on new political topics and social concerns is simultaneously a son's testament to his father and a more general expansion of African American cultural excellence.
From early childhood to the present, Ian White has been exposed to a variety of artistic and political influences that inform his present work as an emerging front-rank political artist. Growing up in a progressive family, he was in constant contact with various cultural luminaries, almost all of whom shared his father's vision of a new society free of racism and injustice. These early influences fostered his personal dedication to using art as his most effective form of personal communication.
His travels in early adulthood further solidified his activist political stance. His experiences in Central America, especially in Nicaragua during the Sandinista era, informed him with a deeper knowledge of major contemporary political struggles, encouraging him to use his art as a weapon in those struggles. His contact with the vibrant political billboards and murals of those times (now, regrettably, obliterated by the American-sponsored conservative regime in that land) stimulated him to produce comparable artistic work in his own country. The three years he spent in New York similarly augmented his social consciousness. The cumulative effect of all these travels was to reinforce the commitment to political art he initially encountered at home.
Equally important, he has been influenced by some of the giant figures of socially conscious art, men and women who, like his father Charles, devoted their creative careers to a critical view of social and political life. He recalls, for example, the powerful impact of reading Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content, a book that eloquently defends the proud heritage of social dissent in the arts. He observes too that he is deeply impressed by the entire history of leftist visual art. He sees his own efforts as following the example of such major political artists as Kathe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Among contemporary artists, he acknowledges the influence of such key figures as Sue Coe, John Biggers, and David Hammons. Significantly, Biggers and Hammons are outstanding and highly visible representatives of the long tradition of African American resistance art. Hammons himself was a student of Charles White at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles during the 1960s. Ian White, although of both Chinese and African American biological origin, identifies himself as an African American, and sees himself as extending the legacy of all his distinguished predecessors and contemporaries.
Like most major political artists, Ian White is well trained formally in the fine arts. He received his B.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he had, among others, Angela Davis as a teacher, a relationship that reinforced his own perspective as an African American activist. Recently, he completed his M.F.A. degree at the Otis Art Institute, preparing him to combine his own visual art with the same teaching responsibilities that made his father such an influential figure in African American art history.
White's artwork combines a variety of forms with incisive social commentary. Using traditional paintings, murals, and mixed media installations, he has already produced an impressive body of provocative artworks that engage his viewers and encourage them to think seriously about the controversial issues of the late 20th century. Not surprisingly, he has regularly addressed the continuing problems of the African American population still struggling against the persistent effects of racism and oppression in the United States. In an untitled oil and acrylic painting from 1990 (Figure 1), for example, he uses a solitary figure whose expression reveals a powerful sense of anguish or despair. Psychologically perceptive, the work communicates an understanding of the boy's inner turmoil. On one level, the painting expresses a universal feeling of emotional pain.
The meaning of the work transcends the realm of individual psychology. A thoroughly political artist, White understands the inseparable linkage of personal emotions and social conditions. More deeply, the work highlights a distressingly familiar storythe precariousness of young black men in America in the final years of the century. The artist's vision conveys the savage emotional consequences of confronting the hostile social and economic environment for black males.
The subject's facial expression is profoundly revealing. It reflects an unnerving recognition that he and his peers face overwhelming odds in contemporary America. It reinforces the familiar understanding that by virtually every standard--mortality, health, education, employment, and income--African American men fare poorly. The figure's face suggests too the sorrow of knowing young friends who have died or been incarcerated. In short, it personalizes the harsh realities that appear all too abstract when presented in dry statistical form.
This painting, however, has a double meaning. It can and should be read more positively, despite its obvious depiction of personal anguish in the face of an insufferable environment. The young man, for example, might be expressing his sense of exhaustion after a long night of studying physics or history. Facing powerful obstacles, he is determined to prevail despite all odds. White's effort, created with deliberate ambiguity, encourages viewers to understand both the horrific conditions of contemporary black men and to applaud their remarkable resilience in responding to these conditions.
"I Have A Dream--Reality" (Figure 2) is a more overt political statement. Painting directly on a credit card embossing machine, the artist again uses the figure of a young African American boy. Gazing suspiciously at the image of the U.S. capitol in Washington, DC, he comprehends the immense gap between the promises of the government and the far grimmer reality. The credit card metaphor expresses dramatically what African Americans citizens have known since the Civil War. Despite some modest if grudging advances, and despite the anti-racist rhetoric of governmental officials for many decades, a truly adequate pay-off for centuries of egregious racism is still forthcoming. Like his older contemporaries, the boy seeks appropriate compensation, paid at least at the same interest rate that consumers encounter with VISA and American Express.
Ian White's empathy for the dispossessed extends well beyond his own African American community. In "DC Railroaded" (Figure 3), he employs a Monopoly-like image to chronicle the human and animal displacement caused by 19th century westward expansion. Countering the romanticized version of the expansion found in the conventional media and in school textbooks, the painting encourages viewers to understand the fundamental and destructive displacement of that era. The Santa Fe Railroad, represented in a side view at the top and in a front view in the center of the composition, symbolizes the predatory commercial development that displaced Native Americans from their villages and the bison population from their land. Abetted at every stage by the United States government, the westward drive wreaked incalculable havoc on the land and its inhabitants, all in the name of progress and prosperity. White's effort both provides an effective antidote to the popular view that economic expansion is always desirable and raises serious questions about the continuing impact of corporate expansion on people and the environment.
An accomplished public artist, Ian White has often employed murals to advance his critique of contemporary society. In "Genocidal Tendencies" (Figure 4), he addresses the continuing problem of nuclear catastrophe. Once again, his focus on a young boy enables audiences to personalize the dangers of a nuclear accident. The boy's expression reveals obvious anguish at the potential effects of a meltdown. The three silos at the left of the mural are an ominous presence, an appropriate reminder of the tragedies of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
White intensifies his warning about atomic energy's destructive potential by painting a border of circled covered wagons, a pointed reference to the historical genocide committed against American Indians. In the present setting, the wagons represent an absurdly outmoded "defense" against the risks of nuclear power plant accidents. By juxtaposing 19th century images against a late 20th century technological danger, he underscores the seriousness of the threat to human health and life. The circled wagons suggest a precarious sense of false security, mirroring a widespread public attitude in the United States and other nations employing nuclear power as an energy source. Too many people want desperately to believe that the nuclear industry is safe, having fully learned the lessons of the recent past. They remained certain, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that a tragedy can never happen to them. "Genocidal Tendencies" provides an effective visual antidote to the pervasive reality of human denial.
Like many artistic colleagues committed to a political vision, White used his work to criticize President George Bush's Gulf War of 1991. He responded dramatically to the media-inspired atmosphere that deceptively framed this war as an American athletic contest. His mixed media sculpture entitled "New World Bowl Vet" (Figure 5) scathingly denounces the cheap and superficial patriotism that dominated American consciousness during the saturation bombing of Iraq. The artist emphasizes a camouflaged-covered football helmet at the top of the sculpture, sardonically revealing the simplistic win/lose ambiance of most public discourse during the Gulf War. A closer glimpse, however, shows a human skull beneath the helmet. For White, the human consequences of the war demand public recognition and attention. In presenting "New World Bowl Vet," he joins a long tradition of socially engaged artists who have sought to deromanticize war by highlighting the fatal consequences to combatants and civilians alike.
"Go With The Spirit" (Figure 6) extends that artistic critique even further. This acrylic painting focuses on the Iraqi women victims at the top left. Virtually ignored by the American mass media, untold thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians perished, the vast majority of whom were hardly zealots defending Saddam Hussein. The women survivors, mothers and wives, are left to deal with the grief and
hardship of their losses. White adds, moreover, a familiar political commentary in this work. By presenting the gas pump at the right and the rising symbol of Union 76 at the bottom left, and by appropriating the advertising slogan of that corporation for his artwork's title, he suggests that oil interests remain the dominant reason for American involvement in the Persian Gulf.
In recent years, Ian White has embarked on a variety of more public art forms to express his ideas about the defects of modern society. One of his most imaginative efforts was a 1993 installation entitled "25 Will Get You 25: Read 'Em And Weep" (Figure 7). Repainting a standard vending machine for children found in most American supermarkets, he transformed the instrument from a mildly innocuous revenue producer to a forum for education and social criticism. Encouraging audience participation, White has inserted 8 different plastic guns in containers, each with a printed message providing statistics about violence, crime, and guns, especially in African American communities. Some of the plastic containers have miniature handcuffs, the 20th century symbol of slave era shackles. Together, these visual replicas inform young people of the deeper historical roots of the dangers they face daily. They suggest too that these same adolescents must take some personal responsibility in alleviating the present problems by refocusing their energies on more positive activities.
In 1994, the artist executed a "guerrilla" artwork that reinforced several of the artistic themes of his entire creative career. Under cover of darkness, he installed a site-specific mural (Figure 8) on a retaining wall on Forest Lawn Drive in North Hollywood. This road is located near the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, Travel Town, and Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary. The mural depicts three real estate signs with the names of these three attractions. The images below the text contain a combination of the Native American cosmos shield and the West African mandala.
As White explains in a news release accompanying this guerrilla effort, the work's content and context are closely linked. The Autry Museum romanticizes the Western frontier and trivializes Native Americans' contributions to frontier development. Travel Town honors American railroad history without revealing any of the detrimental human and environmental consequences of this history. Forest Lawn Cemetery, itself a well known tourist site in Los Angeles, is an example of a European burial ground that receives uncritical attention and unconditional protection. White's positioning of the work is intended to raise issues of the historical treatment of various indigenous peoples.
Only 30 years old, Ian White has already established a notable record of effective political art. His recent efforts suggest an increasing sense of scale and complexity, particularly his public projects that involve substantial audience participation. A fine representative of the growing community of Los Angeles-based African American artists, his unique vision continues the struggle against the various injustices of modern society.
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and the Center for African American Studies in providing support for this article.