On the day President Obama signed the tobacco bill, I visited Pae White’s Smoke Knows at 1301PE on Wilshire Blvd. The memory of Roosevelt, cigarette holder clenched between his teeth, and the continuity of democracy that has brought the current smoker-in-chief to the same desk comes to mind, but so does the image of the President signing the bill in the fresh air of the Rose Garden, adjacent to the portico where he steals away to smoke. I choose not to see this as incongruity, but as a sign of the maturation of the American polis that prefers to elect effective legislators rather than exemplary role models. Give me a hard drinkin' Lincoln over a teetotaling Bush any day.Pae White's Smoke Sequence #3, 2009 (detail)
At 1301PE it’s easy to become lost in a reverie of smoke; the smoke-dulled tapestries from Belgium, Beauvais, and Bayeux; things (like autumn leaves) that go up in smoke; and the translucent grey sworls that waft and curl from the ashen end of Obama’s Camel Wide. But White is not dealing in metaphor--so much as she inverts metonymy. Unlike the metonymic example of say, carbon emissions, which has a congruent and causal relationship to climate change, smoke is a congruent effect in both senses of the word: causal and theatrical.Pae White's Smoke Sequence #3, 2009
In several of White’s tapestries, the image is rotated 90 degrees, often the first manipulation of a jpeg with photographic software. The combination of horizontal smoke and photography conjures thoughts of wind tunnels and the scientific. But White's smoke doesn't whizz by, it lazily swirls, inviting the viewer to slow down and contemplate. Closer inspection of the tapestries reveals a multitude of whites, grays, and blacks, and the mechanical translation of pixels into warp and weft. But White’s art, which signs for work made in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, is still able to foreground formal concerns that representative artists of the past millennia have struggled with when attempting to depict light.Pae White's Smoke Sequence #6, 2009
Like sfumato and Renaissance depictions of atmospheric haze, smoke gives presence to the intangibility of air. Smoke becomes a placeholder for the invisible atmosphere we swim in. At the same time smoke obscures, it focuses our attention to the thing behind it; as it occludes, it reveals. Like a president with anti-tobacco legislation in one hand and a cigarette in the other, smoke holds two seemingly contradictory positions at once.Pae White's Smoke Sequence #1, 2009 (detail)
White’s show Smoke Knows presents three bodies of work with three modes of production. Upstairs, small sheets of pigment-coated paper are laser-etched to reveal the white substrate. What appear to be monochrome drawings of smoke are actually produced with a method similar to the way Michael Jackson’s dermatologist produced his white wrinkle-free skin.Pae White's Smoke Knows, 2009
Both upstairs and downstairs are scatterings of hand-made leaves that White refers to as Gutter Leaves. According to White, these pieces draw on her memories of leaves cleaned from the gutters of her childhood home in Pasadena. The installation also reveals the fireplace in the entry gallery; an existing architectural element from the era when 1301PE was a showroom for Lanz of Salzburg, a woman’s sleepwear retailer. This conflation of the personal and historical (White wore Lantz nightgowns as a child) creates another causal inversion, one where the viewer is forced to decipher the past from White’s artistic production. Like reading tealeaves to foresee the future, meaning that is projected is not understanding, but a chance for us to confabulate from what is essentially smoke and mirrors.Pae White's Paper Carving #6, 2009
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