CROSSING OVER: CHARLIE WHITE By Alicia Van Couvering
California-based artist Charlie White has made his mark with highly produced, carefully-staged photographs that construct scenes both disturbing and familiar, work that aims to dissect the violence, desires, and social anxieties that trouble the American collective unconscious. From his Understanding Joshua Series (2001), which offered an adorable/repulsive monster character as surrogate for human fragility and the internal demons that haunt our experiences of self, to the more varied And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull series that, among other uncanny images, offered The Persuaders, a flat Sesame Street-like image of puppets taunting their tormented human host in front of a storybook blue sky. Often cast with actors, employing the magic of special effects teams, and taking on scenes from our pop culture consciousness – one photo re-staged the 1970 Charlie Manson trial — White’s work is easy to describe as ‘cinematic.’ But few would expect to see a Charlie White film at Sundance.
American Minor, part of his most recent series titled Girl Studies, is an eight-minute, four scene visual meditation that will be shown in New Frontiers. Shari Frilot, organizer of the New Frontier, saw White’s work in London, and invited him to submit the film for consideration.
As described by White, American Minor “observes a single, protracted morning in the life of a picture-perfect American youth lost in the dehumanizing space that wealth, isolation, and fear can provide. By watching this American teen perform basic acts, from eating cereal, to watching television, to combing her hair, the film aims to reveal the complicated relationship between personal pleasure and politics, youth and sexuality, and class and suppression.”
When asked about the transition from photography to film, White offered, “I think there is a very natural bridge between photography and film, document and narrative, still and time-based works. I started working in photography with a very cinematic approach, as my photographs became less cinematic I began to think more about time-based work as an option for ideas that I felt photography could not accomplish in the manner that I desired. For me, the two mediums go hand–in-hand currently, the film allowed me to let go of the tableau in my photographs, and the photographs allowed my film to move at a very meditative pace where the entire frame was the story, not the actions unfolding in the frame.”
Perhaps most interesting when considering White’s work in a film festival is the complications involved with the venue itself. White makes work for museums, and a Park City theatre with an audience of blackberry-tappers is not exactly a calm, controlled environment. “In an institutional environment you walk in prepared for the work, for the metabolism of it. In an over-archingly narrative, linear place like Sundance I think my eight minutes might be a long eight minutes.
“The idea of space is utterly controllable to an artist,” White continues. “So the idea that it just goes into some kind of pool of presentation possibilities where it might not be right, that’s a nightmare for an artist. The festival is very different then a museum, so I will have to let go of these terms, and the film will have to screen like all others in various theaters, with various degrees of difference in their surroundings– and this fine, because I see the film as able to traffic in both institutional spaces and in normal commercial cinema theaters, where all of the preconditions of “the movies” play a part in how it is read.”
Exhibition conflicts and all, White is thrilled about Park City. “I was honored when it was selected, and I think that as a film it is going to be seen in one of the best contexts possible. New Frontiers is an extremely relevant non-competitive space. There are so many people who helped me work on it who don’t function in art and academia. I was so excited to tell them that it’s in Sundance, to announce that it’s in something that’s so big in their world and their culture.”