Interview by Ali Subotnick
“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.”
— CHARLIE WHITE
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.
AS: How much of your interest in Plato comes from nostalgia? From a time before cell phones and computers, when we had to buy teen magazines to see girls like Brooke and Kristy and Dana? Are you thinking at all about how we look at these pictures differently now that things have changed so drastically with the marketing of celebrity and youth culture?
CW: I am certainly interested in how these photos look different and, in fact, are different than anything today. It’s less of a nostalgia than it is anthropological interest, even if some of my curiosity began with a certain fetish for a lost style or aesthetic sensibility. For example, all of the images were made to perform functions. These functions ranged from TV Guide covers to television schedule inserts in newspapers, teen magazine cutout pages and fold-out posters, and celebrity promotional junkets. The product was Dana, and the images varied from little school-girl smiles that could share a spread with Little House On The Prairie to adult poses in bathing suits or skin-tight wears, which offered a different fantasy altogether.
This is an era of portraiture past; a time of bright solids and predetermined negative space for copy; a period of weekly publications and voluminous promotional materials. All of this adds to something special and lost in how photographs worked and functioned in an analog market, and what it meant when those photographs were of a teen girl and a rising star.
AS: Speaking of the entertainment industry, can you talk about your film project, Situation Comedy? As avid TV watchers, we talked about this project at length, and I find it incredibly ambitious and challenging. The film you wrote focuses on a hugely successful sitcom (one of the last) and how it develops and grows over the ten years it is broadcast. In the film, you take on the clichés and formulas of the sitcom format, but you also bring in characters that reflect the culture at large, including transexuals. All of the sudden, transexuals are all over the media – real news and fictional shows like Transparent. What do you make of this?
“All of these young women were the subject
of intense lenticular gaze, one that stared at,
undressed and fetishized their very being.”
— Charlie White
CW: Thats a great question because Situation Comedy is the largest work I will most likely never get to make. As each year passes, its concepts (as you said) become closer to reality. The film was written with Vernon Chatman, who I greatly respect and is viewed as one of the few television experimentalists. His work includes Wonder Showzen, Xavier Angle and The Heart, She Holler. He’s also involved in Louie C.K.’s show, is one of the writers on South Park and so on. So he totally and completely understands television.
Anyhow, yes, the film collapses time and moves the viewer forward across a decade of change seen only through one family sitcom, laugh track and all. I loved writing it and will probably never get the chance to make it, although seeing the incredible response to smaller projects like Too Many Cooks does make me feel like it could be embraced by the right person. Anyhow, the film pointed to a China fetish, transexuality, nonfictional spin-offs, micro-franchises, growing conservatism and collective social media cleansing, aiming to illustrate the future in the same way I had found looking back at important sitcoms captured the past.
An NBC sitcom created by Gary David Goldberg that ran from 1982-1989 and reflected the cultural shift in America away from the liberalism of the ’60s and ’70s and toward the conservatism of the ’80s. The multiple Emmy Award-winning show followed the relationship of a young Republican Alex P. Keaton and his parents, who were former hippies.
To clarify, I don’t mean this in the obvious sense of a TV show feeling dated. What I mean is that when you watch a show like Family Ties very carefully, with an acute understanding of popular influences and politics, you can see the culture war giving over to Reaganomics, the position of Alex P. Keaton becoming the brand that America wanted, the misogyny of the time embodied in Mallory Keaton, and the aesthetics of power (specifically Nancy Reagan red) becoming dominant. This was my anchor, my truth, and it was how I conceived of a show that could similarly key the viewer into decoding everything happening in the world outside of the show as it moved forward into the future.
AS: Maybe you should get into trend forecasting. I still have faith that Situation Comedy will be made someday. Especially now that the Hollywood talent agencies are getting into the art business. Do you have any other unrealized projects stored in your vault?
CW: I am working on an animated girl’s television show that would (ideally) challenge the male dominance of alternative cartoons, and aim to use that same platform to present something new, honest and nonviolent. We will see. I am lucky to be working with two great outfits: the animation studio Six Point Harness and the production company Mosaic. Both are very supportive of my ideas, and both agree that it is time for such a show. However, it is so much harder to make a popular product than it is to make art or art about that product, so I cannot say this will ever be realized. It is clear that some people in the world of entertainment would like to see it happen, and that is enough to keep me engaged.
AS: Back to your interest in girls, but not in a pervy way – you recently organized a show of all female sculptors. What inspired you to do the show?
CW: In 2009, I wrote an essay about collage for Artforum that was deeply rooted in what I was seeing in my graduate teaching. Over the past five or so years, I have been watching younger artists (mostly women) who I have taught or come to know while teaching working with objects and space in a way that outpaced what I was witnessing in the art world’s market spaces and fairs. Similar to my engagement with collage, I was seeing art being made that was more interesting than the art world it would enter and more experimental than its platforms would allow. From there I began to envision a generational show, one that was intimately bound to artists I had come to know well and care for deeply.
Sculpture or GTFO
A 2015 group exhibition curated by Charlie White, which featured the sculpture of five women artists while attempting to remove the gender binary of identifying it as a women’s show. The name is based off of the misogynistic internet acronym (TOGTFO – Tits or Get The Fuck Out) targeted at women in chat boards.
The show SOGTFO (Sculpture or Get the Fuck Out) is a meditation on these feelings through the presentation of five artists whose work exceeds the language and limits that our current fair culture allows – limits based on their gender and fair culture’s preoccupation with the male alpha-object. In an attempt to show a change existent yet rendered invisible through fair culture, the exhibition brings three generations together – emerging artists and recent graduates Kelly Akashi, Nevine Mamoud and Kathleen Ryan, alongside Amanda Ross-Ho, who entered into the dialog in the first decade of the the 21st century, and Andrea Zittel, who cemented her role in the ’90s.
AS: How did you come to be such a feminist? You’re a real champion of women but it doesn’t feel like you’re doing it out of anything but genuine admiration and a desire to empower women. Shall we get Freudian? Do you have a good relationship with your mother?
CW: I am not sure my mother is a part of the equation. Not this one at least. This is about artists I greatly admire. In my twelve years in academia, I have worked side-by-side with amazing women like Andrea Zittel, Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark, A.L. Steiner, Tala Mandani and others, including you. They have been strong supports, incredible intellectual partners and great friends. I do not think my work or my ideas were immediately embraced by many them, but over time we have come to have a much deeper respect for how we all think and how that thinking varies, leaving room for complexity, contradiction and discomfort. I have also grown through relationships with other colleagues like Rhea Anastas, whose writing and thinking has been a critical part of how I understand artist’s potential and notions of progress.
So what I think inspired me to curate (and I do not see myself as a curator) the show was very similar to what inspired me to the write the essay on collage six years ago – it was born from what I saw and what I understood in the world around me that I felt mattered, but was not being spoken to. I did not aim to make a feminist show. I just wanted to argue a point that was clearly limiting artists I believed in deeply, and had revealed itself as a force of cultural and psychological predetermination when regarding sculptural forms in spaces.
“Photography’s ubiquitous role as a proxy
for a once-private narrative is making
photography much less interesting to me.”
— Charlie White
AS: Your work as a champion for women, transgender people and teens is admirable. You have given them a voice in a non-exploitative manner. Are there other subcultures that you are thinking of exploring in your work?
A 2010 one-day performance event organized by Charlie White, which consisted of a casting call looking for a “California Girl” between 13 and 16 to appear on an LA billboard. Viewers were able to watch the casting process through a windowed wall.
CW: I like to think of it as championing. However, I am not sure that my work is always read that way. I do see the portraiture that began in 2008 as exactly that, however that work includes young people, men, women and trans people. I would say that my recent curatorial effort is completely that – a championing of the work and, by extension, the artist. As for subcultures, I don’t think I have ever thought of it that way. I have thought about groups, specifically blonde teens and their iconic role in society, like in CASTING CALL, or adolescence as a parallel to transition. And in much earlier works, issues that related to social anxiety and cultural tension, but never really as a subculture.
Cyrilla Strothers Project
From 2004-2006, Charlie White documented the life of a teenage girl living in the suburbs of California through nearly 11,000 photographs. Some of these images are used as visual accompaniment to his project Music for Sleeping Children, an experimental pop album in collaboration with musician Boom Bip.
Listen to Music for Sleeping Children.
Maybe I see things in phases, and then I look at phases, or perhaps just moments and how a moment in a life offers something universal. When I studied Cyrilla Strothers from 2004 to 2006, what became clear was that I was not only capturing a young woman from 16 to 18, I was seeing the world at that moment. Now, almost ten years later, the images have begun to reveal an America right before the crash, before the social media explosion, smart phones, etc. An America at a high-water mark between 9/11 and the stock market implosion, and how the self – in this case Cyrilla – was able to understand her identity in relation to that moment.
As far as where I am looking now, I do not think it’s anywhere completely new for me. Instead, I feel like I am understanding more by looking at the same thing, but finding it harder to capture. That’s not that best answer, but that is the most honest one I can give. I believe that’s why I began looking backwards at Dana Plato, began the journal or want to realize the cartoon, because photography’s ubiquitous role as a proxy for a once-private narrative is making photography much less interesting to me. But change is good, and I have never really thought of myself as committed to a medium more than an idea.
All works courtesy of the Artist and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles