David Ben White: Inside Outside – l’étrangère 30th October – 5th December 2015
By Guy Sangster Adams
“What a wonderful material to perfectly express part of the spirit of the Modern Age!” Le Corbusier proclaimed of plate glass in his 1935 article, Glass: The Fundamental Material of Modern Architecture. In the same article the Swiss-French designer, painter, writer, and pioneering modernist architect explained how buildings could be built with “glass walls” within a structure “formed of a rigid lattice” which is then “fitted with its mesh of translucent or transparent materials: glass”.
From within a building plate glass both frames the exterior view and brings the outside inside, with the flipside that from without plate glass frames the interior and brings the inside outside. In Inside Outside, David Ben White’s new multi-layered exhibition of paintings and sculptures at London’s l’étrangère gallery, White explores and subverts the styles, themes, and legacy of modernist architecture, design and art, the concepts of public and private spaces, and indeed also the notions of both an art exhibition and gallery space themselves.
The exhibition begins with the series of paintings, Inside Outside, which feature imagined interior spaces characterised by their plate glass windows, but the clean easily assimilable modernist lines that one would expect are distorted, partially obscured and overpowered by the overlay of a rectilinear modernist grid; a grid upon a grid. The transparency and framing that a plate glass window would be expected to provide is subverted. Similarly the canvases are only partially framed and so the definition and separation between artwork and gallery wall is blurred, and the grid system that frames on a wall create is broken. This is taken further by the vinyl lines on the walls in the colours of the paintings that play with perspective and disrupt the viewer’s sense of space; are the paintings on the wall within the gallery, or is the gallery not a space but in fact within the paintings?
In allowing passers-by a far clearer and larger view of the interior plate glass windows on domestic buildings diminish the privacy of a private space and make it far more public – turning the interior spaces into adhoc exhibitions/gallery spaces. Within Inside Outside White plays with this notion of public and private spaces by domesticating his modernist style concrete sculptures, a series called Fabrication of Pleasure, with high Victorian style standard lamp lampshades – which playfully subverts the modernist legacy.
Also within the exhibition is White’s series of portraits Personification of an Ideal. The paintings feature modernist female artists, designers and architects, including Sonia Delauney, Eileen Grey, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, Ise Gropius, Lilly Reich and Gunta Stolzland. Continuing the theme from the Inside Outside series, in each portrait the women’s faces are obscured by the overlay of a rectilinear modernist grid.
In these paintings White is using the grid to examine one of Modernism’s great contradictions – that while it stood for everything progressive, it was, paradoxically, extremely chauvinistic. Compounded by the fact that at the Bauhaus art school, to which when it opened in 1919 female applicants outnumbered male, Walter Gropius proclaimed that the school would not differentiate between “the beautiful and the strong sex” – in reality as T’ai Smith explained in her InVisible Culture article, Pictures Made of Wool: The Gender of Labor at the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop (1919-23), he sought to segregate the female students from the rest of the school and that weaving – which was seen as a feminised medium – was one of the few areas of study open to them.
The female artists, designers and architects in White’s paintings were all at the heart of modernism and all created extraordinary and influential bodies of work but were often overlooked at the time by galleries and the art establishment in favour of their husbands and male contemporaries, and to a certain extent their significance has continued to be overlooked until recently.
David Ben White: Inside Outside
runs from 30th October – 5th December 2015
at l’étrangère, 44a Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3PD
Gallery open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm or by appointment
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Tags: Art & Design