I won’t belabor the point because we’re all kind of sick of it, but the pandemic played a huge role in White’s new direction, as did fatherhood. White says he found himself overwhelmed after his last major show took years to complete, and the pandemic slowdown gave him time to reflect and spend time with his daughter, now 4. He also decided that, for his next show, he’d set a shorter timeline to work within, both as a means to maintain sanity, and to sort of condition himself to relinquish pieces before he overworked them. Even as we stand in Hecho, checking out the work, he points out elements in one of the landscapes—a rocky canyon above which hangs a glowing gila monster in a moon-like, circular repose—that could read as unfinished. It’s almost Zen.
“I like that,” White says, “because it kind of makes you look around the whole piece instead of just one spot.”
Later, we’re sitting on a pleasant downtown patio and checking out someone’s cute dog as White basks in the sun and explains where he’s coming from:
“With my last show, I felt like I tried to accomplish so many things at one time, and it was very expansive. The work spanned a decade,” he says. “With the current show, my goal was to create a very minimal bandwidth of expression that was extremely cohesive. I tried to let go of the feeling of needing to communicate a lot of ideas.”
The new idea here is simple, an exercise in pleasant aesthetics. White achieves his canyon-laden watercolor landscapes, for example, on wood panel with paper fused onto its surface. At first glance, the canyons look almost like pen and ink, but in there are softer areas that reveal the painterly aspects. White notes he wanted to make it tricky for the viewer to discern the media straight away so as to strip away the artifice of power—as in, our tendency to assign arbitrary value to certain media; oils, for example, somehow hit harder than illustrations. Why is that?
As the conversation progresses beyond the idea that art is beholden to statement, White discusses how he deprogrammed from the assumption that he had an obligation to present his thoughts on the world through his work and zeroed in more on sense of place.
“That I was saying something was somehow an important part of my artistic identity,” he tells SFR. “I intentionally took a couple years off and had a lot of time to be more introspective. I felt like after living here for a decade, I could be more connected to where I’m at instead of where I came from.”
That where-he-came-from is a combination of Southern California and Boston, for the record, though that seems irrelevant now. White has embraced the desert in a real way, particularly its more soothing aspects, at least in this show. He’s embraced what it means to be a dad, the beauty within the wings of a moth, the vast cosmic inner-life of snakes.
“I guess I wanted to be more of an observer,” he adds of New Mexico’s role in the new body of work, “instead of a commentator.”
Part of that grew through daily walks with his daughter (they did 1,000 miles one year, he says, though not as part of a goal or regimen—it just happened). Which brings us back to ideas of exploration and even isolation. In those early days of COVID-19, when White was hunkered down with his kid and wife—the artist Thais Mather, with whom White co-owns downtown business Good Folk, and who will also show new pieces at Desert Solitaire—outdoor sojourns became regular occurrences for many. It became almost spiritual for White, even if, he says, he’s “reticent to talk about spirituality and symbolism in a literal sense.”
“I do find it very propulsive in what I’m drawn to and how I understand the world,” he adds. “But I don’t have any claims on those things being real per se. I do think they resonate spiritually with everyone as archetypal parts of who we are.”
What resonates for this art fan is White’s lack of pretense. Here we have a man who saw beauty around him—in his environment, his family life, his artistic ability—and found a way to share it. Given previous forays into darker or more fantastical themes, it feels borderline risky for the artist. But the risk pays off.
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See Todd Ryan White's Works here