Some techniques for creating a sense of longing with forms. First, one might create a sense of emptiness, the impression that a vital part of an object is missing. This impression might be increased when this void, this lack, is at the heart of an object’s raison d’être. An elegant jug does not necessarily convey a restless longing for water, but an empty swimming pool might. Second: the arrangement of sculptural holes into anthropomorphised gapes – the glance of a pleading eye, a wailing open maw, even a disturbing void where one instinctually senses that a head should be. Third, a sense of reaching and straining may be emphasised – objects may appear to stretch out in a difficult direction – attempting to stand on spindly legs or trying to touch another form across a divide. Fourth, one can call to the table the ghostly presence of the husk – the empty body, the shell, the casing, the empty chrysalis, the remains of a transformation: the butterfly long since flown.
There is a delicate thread of longing that runs through several of the works created by the artist Douglas White over the past decade, and many of the artist’s sculptures include one or more of the devices listed above, many of which exert a kind of instinctual, physical pull on the viewer that is not necessarily tied to a particular set of references or associations (though these can operate within the work also). But this, a central element to White’s work, demands a rather more a bodily reaction that is felt before it is thought.
Take White’s found object works, which have consistently appeared throughout his career, and indeed, his life. The artist has described finding one of these objects in the woods as a young child: “I remember finding a twisted twig when I was about seven years old, it was strange and magical to me. It looked just like a drowning man clinging to a log, his mouth gaping in a cry. I doubt anyone else would see this in it.” Years later, a hollow fern root that the artist came across and appropriated looks as though it might be a small headless animal wearing a ceremonial cloak – a totem, of sorts, to loss.
Counsel (2005) is a sculpture comprising two black plastic bins from a London council estate which have been transfigured by having been set on fire. Their status as innocuous, functional objects has been stripped from them, and? in their mutated new guise, formed by the oozing, bending, melting of plastic they appear like dark, wailing phantoms – the terrifying figures of hoods with no body inside them. The bin on the left almost looks as though it is flinging open a jacket, like a covert salesman, to show hidden wares inside: in this case a wine bottle, the contents long since drained. Given their home on an urban council estate, often the most architecturally visible sites of depravation within London, one is tempted to assume that the bins were set on fire in an act of violent, frustrated vandalism, though this may not be the case – a simple accident of a misplaced cigarette could have caused the fire. However, it’s hard not to sense that, through a transformative act of violence, a hidden pair of wailing spectres has been revealed on the estate that has been lying beneath all along (though the works far predate the London riots, the sense of roaring unrest, of hidden pools of resentment and pain, are tangible in these works.)
While such moments often create such disturbing imagery, White has also employed objects trouvés that are straightforwardly beautiful, enchanting. Owl (2007) was created when a dusty owl flew into a domestic window leaving a perfect imprint of its feathery body and a register of the velocity at which it hit the glass. As the dust is lit up by White who presents the pane as a ‘large glass’, (hence calling to mind, via Duchamp, appropriation’s origin story), one sees an image of the owl in full flight, a bird long-associated with knowledge, philosophy and magic, and registers it as a creature of delicacy and authority. True, one can equally see the irony of this encounter. Yet, still, one can’t help but notice that the dust is at its densest at the point of the most violent impact; the owl’s head is a smudged blur, and so one is left considering the fact that this work could perhaps be seen as a drawing of the owl’s moment of death. This darkly beautiful suggestion is echoed in White’s prints of octopus made with their own ink, as though he has reached inside a creature to find the heart of its nature before using it as an agent in the recording of its own death. In the sense that the creature records its undoing or destruction, these works might be thought of as a kind of faunal counterpoint to Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961).
The recording of a moment that at once encompasses a powerful impact and a delicate aestheticism is reflected in White’s recent works that employ electricity as a form of drawing tool. Running an electric current into wood to create his Lichtenberg Drawings (2012), named after the patterns, resembling rivers and tributaries or delicate branches, which are made when electricity strikes an object. In one such work, two such branches of charge seem to be reaching towards one another through the wood. Electricity is desire without choice or restraint – it simply finds the easiest path to get what it wants, and to reach its end. Thus that Lichtenberg Drawing in particular – the near meet –encompasses a sense of pure longing halted in midmotion – a connection about to be made, yet never reached.
As such creative natural patterns can be tracked across the elements, so too can those of breakdown or decay. White has several times used broken fragments of blown-out tyres in his work, having come across them on the roadsides of Belize, and has used them to create sculptures of palm trees that look as though they have been struck by lightning, or works such as Black Sun (2010) in which the empty centre of the tyre forms a kind of central hole, around which the fraying rubber begins to resemble delicate growing roots. That what looks like creative energy is (at least) a threefold destructive one (the extraction of rubber, the carbon harm of gas guzzling and the subsequent breakdown of these tyres as littered waste) is neatly encompassed in the work’s materiality and its title.
The figure of the counterpoint (the black sun) is also a recurring motif in White’s sculpture. A series of decomposing, punctured basketballs, for example, which resemble crawling shelled creatures might be the deflated cousins of Jeff Koons’s overinflated luxuriant basketball sculptures. It is this dual sense of emptiness and decomposition alongside grace and magic that has informed White’s recent works based around the figure of the elephant. Having stumbled upon an elephant carcass some year’s ago – its majestic lumbering body now broken down (almost, as he describes it, like ‘an empty tent’) the artist was haunted by the image. He has previously fashioned sculptures that reference the elephant’s body in pieces from wood (Elephant Totem (2009)) which took its name from the Ted Hughes’s poem Crow’s Elephant Totem Song, which tells of an elephant, once a beautiful and delicate creature that is torn apart by jealous hyenas and remakes itself – a tough and melancholy monument to pain. More recently, however, using clay to create the texture of the elephant’s skin, White has been able to create the sense of deflation that his first encounter with the elephant’s skin, slung over its old bones. The fragments of elephant skin appear to be trying to reassemble themselves into something graceful once more. Not only a monument to pain, but to vitality too. To the double life of the weighty mammal and its light, delicate spirit.