Sue de Beer
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn
Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed
Erik van Lieshout
Stephen G. Rhodes
Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch
On David’s sword in Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (1608–11), we read an abbreviation: “H-AS OS,” that is, “humilitas occidit superbiam,” or humility kills pride. Half a decade later Manilli suggested: “In that head Caravaggio portrayed himself, and in the boy he portrayed his Caravaggino.” It is this painting and Manilli’s suggestion that stand behind Charlie White’s Champion (2005), in which a young David holds the severed head of a Goliath whose features are that of an aged version of the artist himself. It is, one might say, the Alpha and Omega of White’s series Everything Is American (2005–2006). While with much of his work a quick judgment could be made that beyond the American typology, which is always on view in White’s highly directorial approach to image-making, there lies a reference to archetypes—that is, ever recurring images from collective and individual prehistory—Champion is also a key to realizing that this is completely incorrect.
If archetypes refer to the notion of an eternal return of images and psychic demands, fears, and anxieties given shape by re-imagining, then allegory references something that was never there to begin with. If archetypes refer through a kind of hallucination to satisfactions once experienced, then allegory refers to an insisting emptiness which is both before and beyond satisfaction. White’s work draws that line over and over again, flirting with both, but in the end, it lands firmly on the side of allegory. Therefore, the phrase “Everything is American” implodes, through its confrontation with the viewer, the implicit claim of American culture to being the end-point of the “pursuit of happiness,” the culmination of the eternal strife that is human history, starting with Homo Habilis (2005) and its appropriation of tools, and ending with post-history’s eternal energy and cultural well-spring, the bodies and minds of —Californian?—teenagers, as in 1957 (2005), and their world-policing counterpart, as in The Americans, US Armed Forces (2005).
But let us return for a moment to Champion. In Caravaggio’s painting the youthful slayer still has his “tool” with him—the sword—pointing beyond the picture plane. His eyes are directed (with disgust, some say) towards the slain man’s giant head, which, in turn—undeadness incarnate—looks away, down towards the floor. Both are locked together in the image. Neither acknowledges nor is capable of acknowledging anything beyond their encounter. One could, of course, give the painting a standard Oedipal reading: the young “Caravaggio” slays a father-figure in order to be able to inscribe himself in the space which this act opens up, to enter symbolic history. However, the two figures are in fact the same person—they are both Caravaggio. With this, we enter a space which is that of the Ego. However, it is not a triumphant Ego uniting its field into a world. Rather, it is itself split into a dead object and a watchful “I,” which knows, or seems to know, that this object will always be able to return, or that the head of Goliath has turned into its most authentic state: that of undeadness. In a contrast which must be read before this background, the two sets of eyes in Champion both gaze at the viewer. Their gazes do not keep the viewer “outside,” but rather bring him or her into their realm, allowing him or her to recognize that he or she was always already there. Thus, the Ego in question is transferred from the picture, from the realm of the artist, to that of the viewer. This also happens in White’s re-creation of the Pietà, The Americans, US Gymnastics Team (2005), in which the only letter present, the “U” on the coach’s polo shirt, performs the same transformation. It is by way of these shifts that White manages to move from the imaginary identifications of archetypes to the symbolic level of allegory. With this, his work opens up a pressing question—that of responsibility, not in a heated moralist sense, but in what I would call an almost cool or detached political sense. Allegory does not hide the truth; it is our identification with images that does. White preempts this identification by crossing the picture plane and involving us by means of distance and directorial construction, not simply through shock or disgust. Allegory knows that the images it uses, and is obliged to use, are fictions. They are true fictions, but, as such, behind them nevertheless stands nothing. Thus, allegory, far from inscribing an eternal return of the same image, the same satisfaction, or the same desire, opens up a space of freedom and responsibility. “H-AS OS” is written on Caravaggio’s sword. If we take into account that the Reformation, in its inception, translates “humilitas” as “nothingness,” what we can say about White’s pictures is this: “Nothing kills Pride.” His work places us in the dialectic which this opens up.
Lives and works in Los Angeles
|2006||Everything Is American, (touring) Brändström & Stene, Stockholm; DA2 Center of Contemporary Art of Salamanca, Spain; Wohnmaschine, Berlin; f a projects, London; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York|
|2003||And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York|
|2001||Understanding Joshua, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York|
|1999||In a Matter of Days, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York|
|2006||Dark Places, Santa Monica Museum of Art, USA|
|2004||Otherwise: Phantastic Art, Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria|
|2003||Octopus 4: More Real Than Life, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, Australia|
|2001||Sometimes Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York|
|2000||Above Human, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, USA|
Charlie White, Monsters (New York, 2007).
Grace Glueck, “Charlie White: Everything Is American,” in: The New York Times (February 10, 2006).
Charlie White, And Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull (Amsterdam, 2003).
Charlie White, Photographs (Frankfurt/Main, 2001).