Extending the Legacy: The Political Art of Ian White


 

Many American art historians, critics,
and laypersons know of the powerful influence of Charles
White, one of the premier African American artists of the
20th century. Thousands of appreciative viewers have been
moved by his murals, paintings, and prints. White spent
his entire career promoting a critical vision
highlighting the 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, Ian White joins his late father in his
commitment to socially conscious art. 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.

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. His travels in
early adulthood solidified his activist political stance.
His experiences in Central America, especially in
Nicaragua during the Sandinista era, informed him about
major contemporary political struggles, encouraging him
to use his art as a weapon in those struggles. His
contact with the 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.

Equally important, he has been
influenced by some of the giant figures of socially
conscious art. 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 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 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 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 that legacy.

Ian White was trained formally in the
fine arts, receiving his BFA at the San Francisco Art
Institute, where he had, among others, Angela Davis as a
teacher. Recently, he completed his MFA degree at the
Otis Art Institute.

White’s artwork combines a variety of
forms with incisive social commentary. Using traditional
paintings, murals, and mixed media installations, he has
produced an impressive body of artwork about the
controversial issues of the late 20th century. 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 to convey the savage
emotional consequences of confronting the hostile social
and economic environment for black males. The subject’s
facial expression reveals the familiar understanding that
by virtually every standard–mortality, health,
education, employment, and income–African American men
fare poorly. The figure’s face suggests the sorrow of
knowing young friends who have died or been incarcerated.

This painting, however, has a double
meaning. The young man, facing powerful obstacles, 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.

In "I Have A Dream–Reality"
(Figure 2), a young African American boy gazes
suspiciously at the image of the U.S. capitol in
Washington, DC as 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.

In "DC Railroaded" (Figure
3), White uses 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.

In his mural "Genocidal
Tendencies" (Figure 4), White 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 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.

White used his work to criticize
President George Bush’s Gulf War of 1991. His mixed media
sculpture entitled "New World Bowl Vet" (Figure
5) denounces the 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.

His "Go With The Spirit"
(Figure 6) 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 are left to deal with the grief and hardship of
their losses. The gas pump at the right and the rising
symbol of Union 76 at the bottom left 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. One of his most
imaginative efforts is the 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. White has
inserted eight 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.

In 1994, the artist executed a
"guerrilla" artwork when 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 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, a
well known tourist site in Los Angeles, is an example of
a European burial ground that receives uncritical
attention and unconditional protection.

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. <B><U>Z<D>

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.