White Paintings: Aesthetic Standards and the Authenticity of the Artistic Process

white on white

White paintings

white on white

“Don’t you just looove this apartment,” the snooty realtor gushed as she gestured towards a pair of white paintings on the white walls. “The owner has such an amazing sense of design.” I looked at the paintings and wondered whether the owner would have been better off buying plain white canvases.  

How did those paintings, of all possible paintings, earn the prestige of hanging in an apartment with high-end decor and a stunning view of Lake Michigan in the original Mies Van Der Rohe residential highrise? It felt reasonable to assume that the owner had not only spent some serious coin on their art collection but had curated their collection with the help of a gallery owner, and possibly an art consultant or interior designer. Their art collection represented the image of success and refinement they wished to express with their home decor. 

When I saw that apartment in 2014, I had been making art for over 10 years, long enough to know that gallery representation, in theory, marks a turning point in an artist’s career that potentially leads to financial success and greater recognition. 

Artistic insecurities

A far cry from my spontaneously bright and colorful paintings, these white on white paintings brought up my insecurities as a self-taught artist. Perhaps my gravitation towards color marked my artwork as amateurish and too childlike for any reputable gallery to consider representing. Serious art is serious, as any MFA graduate will tell you in a lengthy exposition of post-post-modern theory. 

I sought out an art community and like-minded peers to critique my work and learn about their artistic process. At first, I lived and worked in the communal-esque loft spaces in East Pilsen, then later maintained work-only art studios in Ravenswood and Humboldt Park. Generous studiomates and fellow artists brought me up to speed on composition, line, color theory, background, foreground and perspective to my work. My work evolved, with my brushwork becoming looser, more spontaneous and abstracted, all to the approval of fellow artists with formal arts training. 

Yet I could not let go of my need for color or my need to create paintings that serious Artists derided as “pretty.” In their eyes, creating art that appealed to the uninitiated, mainstream viewer made me a dilettante and this remained an unspoken class distinction between these Artists and myself. In response to their critiques, I tried to tone down my colors and veer away from prettiness. I could appreciate the way many painters used white and neutral hues to strip away (what they considered) the distraction of color and to showcase their objective, painterly techniques.  

But forcing restraint to make my paintings more appealing to serious Artists, gallery owners and other arbiters of artistic standards infected my process with unpleasant images of beige cubicles and fluorescent lighting. I wanted no reminder of jobs as a legal assistant and an executive assistant, jobs where I spent my days mired in stressful and boring work: formatting legal documents, answering phones, booking and rebooking travel, managing other people’s calendars, arranging conference calls, making reservations at trendy restaurants, setting up video equipment for meetings, making PowerPoint presentations, submitting expense reports and fetching sugar-filled and caffeinated Starbucks bevvies and treats for lawyers and high-powered C-suite executives.

Art making as self preservation

Transitions I, Oil and Collage on Canvas
Dimensions: 56×36″

I sought comfort and pleasure in my painting even though I feared this marked me as self-indulgent. My studio was a refuge from the demands of living as a functional adult and paying the bills, demands that drove me to the brink of despair. Painting allowed me to lose myself in the tactile experience of mixing colors on a palette, varying my brushstrokes to produce different effects, noting how paint dripped when I turned my canvases and seeing formless forms emerge as I worked the white canvas.  

I cut out interesting objects and corporate logos from magazines, catalogs and fine art paper with Japanese motifs and collaged these onto my  canvases. I mixed fun, bright and happy colors, forming abstract shapes that coalesced into ethereal landscapes of pure imagination, the antithesis of how I felt inside on most days and a personal rebellion against the bland corporate office environment and its meaningless, endless work.

The “restraint” serious Artist friends and studiomates exercised with their palettes felt, when applied to my process, forced, lifeless and, frankly, boring. I did not want to make boring art.

Communion with the sublime

What I came to realize is that painting, like any creative work, is a subjective experience for both the creator and the audience. I began to think about Kandinsky’s color theory that white is a color full of possibilities; perhaps that’s what my fellow artists were attempting to express in their paintings. Kandinsky’s theory was that the artist is driven to create out of a need  that transcends economic necessity and mainstream tastes that proclaim artistic merit and elevate a chosen few to financial success and recognition. The artistic process remains in solemn communion with the sublime, free from prevailing aesthetic trends, transporting the artist and, if successful, the viewer into a higher realm of being.

Artist friends who have been making art and painting their entire lives echoed this sentiment:

“Sometimes I ask myself why I keep painting when I could be doing other more fun things or making more money,” says artist Deva Suckerman. “But I can’t stop so I guess it’s a compulsion.”

“I cannot not make art,” artist Nancy VanKanegan states.

If Kandinsky’s theory about artists is correct, the artistic process does not bend to the current tastes of gallery owners and other gatekeepers who determine which artworks merit consideration as serious art, worthy enough for wealthy individuals to pay upwards of millions of dollars for a particular piece of art. But these wealthy individuals are not really paying for the value of the time and effort an artist puts into her work because there is no objective way to quantify this value. What these individuals are really paying for is the status and prestige of owning art that cultural taste-makers deem significant enough to command exorbitant prices, prices that ensure ownership, and control, of these works remain with those at the apex of global socio-economic hierarchies. 

Authenticity and meaning

Seeing those white on white paintings and hearing the snooty realtor ooh and aah reminded me of this. I did not love that apartment, in fact, I hated it. Every object in that apartment was either white, eggshell, ecru, gray or charcoal in keeping what I understood as a Minimalist aesthetic that was trendy at the time. It was sterile, lifeless and forced; much like my experience when I tried to conform to the dictates of the serious Artists who critiqued my work. 

Authenticity and meaning drive the artistic process and spring from a unique combination of life experiences, cultural, religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual identities and subjective preferences that shape the artist’s identity as an artist and the art she creates. Of course, critiques and feedback are part of that process and good critiques inform and enhance the artistic process, not stifle it. I shared a studio space with my friend and fellow artist Emily Rapport when I was working in that hellish executive assistant job. She encouraged me to take a more spontaneous approach with the collage elements in my paintings. 

“Just leave them where they are and don’t overthink it,” she said after noticing me take hours to arrange collage cutouts on the surface of my canvas. 

I knew she was right from watching her work on her paintings of brownstone three-flats, construction sites, urban nightlife, residential houses, and corner liquor stores. She worked confidently and quickly, using bold colors to capture the gritty beauty of city life and its denizens who loiter on street corners and mill around on sidewalks. Her work showed me that embracing color is nothing to be insecure about and following our own intent and inner voice is what makes an artist an Artist.

Vanessa’s work is currently on view at Eat Paint Studio through April 17, 2021 as part of our “Inscapes” group exhibition.