Maxwell is a writer, editor, and Public Library Assistant living in Philadelphia. They are currently the editor-in-chief of tk.collective. Their focus is on art critique and queer culture, and they write poetry, personal essays and other creative nonfiction. As an artist in their free time, they also practice photography, printmaking, and screen printing.See the exhibition here
When I first saw the late artist Susan Fenton’s piece, White: Untitled 10, I felt entranced by the quiet meditation on the color white. There was deceptive simplicity in the piece: it felt quiet yet so dynamic for being a monochrome still life. Fenton’s photograph brought feelings of ease from such a thematically unified work, and yet I felt slightly unsettled as I sunk into the whiteness of the piece. The associations with the color white felt fraught as I immediately thought: purity. A loaded word. An impossible achievement, an unattainable objective. It is these feelings of unification matched with tension that make White: Untitled 10 such an evocative and introspective photograph. It brings up questions of morality that linger even after Fenton’s passing in 2018. In White: Untitled 10, Fenton demonstrates the unattainability of perfection and allows the viewer to ruminate on the cultural significance of the color white in Western aesthetics and society. It is a modestly provocative piece that insists on being chewed slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully.
White: Untitled 10 is part of Fenton’s White Series, which features still life of various shaped objects and off white (and a few not white at all) on a pure white platform and backdrop. The still life becomes abstracted and sculptural as the ambiguous objects are rearranged and form new shapes. The monochrome nature of the series adds complexity as the viewer navigates the relations of the still life objects as well as the tension embodied by the color white. White: Untitled 10 is a strong example of the series. At first glance to White: Untitled 10, we, the viewer, approach a sea of nameless white. In the photograph, six objects of various shapes and utilities are arranged in two centered rows neatly next to each other on a white platform and backdrop that run off the frame. The photograph is set in an undisclosed time and place—bound to the color white and boundless in its abstract articulation of objects and space.
In White: Untitled 10, there is a togetherness and unity upon first glance at the photograph, where one might see a collage of white shapes that all seem similar and complementary. Upon further speculation of this blanket of whiteness, the more differentiated the objects command themselves: shades of the individual objects become separate values of white, each a slightly different hue. It is almost as if the linear rows of objects with such a pristine light color give way to the natural error in design and pigmentation; the organic deviations in structure and color come to the forefront of our attention. Human and natural error give way to discoloration and hues: the viewers eyes have been deceived. There is a meditation of the impossibility of perfection, of the impossibility of true white. The tension found in the proximity of White: Untitled 10 to this unrealized perfection is enriched when one considers the history behind the color white and its symbolism.
In part, the aesthetics of the color white feel charged, because they are linked to Anglo-Saxon Christian roots. While many societies, ancient and present, have believed the color white to be the color of purification, the West has created a stark association with femininity, piety, and domesticity. In the essay, “Black, white and red: archetypes and symbols,” Renata Pompas and Lia Luzzatto examine the color white’s symbolic history. In the Middle Ages in Europe, white was a favorable color of apparel in order to show piety and innocence (absence of sin), and this may have transformed into the Western associations of white with purity. For the past two centuries, white wedding dresses have been popular in the West, their white color symbolizing the chastity and “moral integrity” of the woman getting married. And there are other current examples as well. White has been the color one wears when getting baptized in Christianity, to demonstrate one’s piousness and rebirth as a child of Christ. White can be associated with cleanliness and sterility as we see in hospitals. Practically though, white is a delicate and honest color subject to discoloration and staining. There is faulty logic to be found in this perfectionism and purification. The color white is too delicate and fragile for purity and perfection to ever be sustainable or attainable. The symbolism cannot hold to the practical physicality.
There is more to the color white than Christian symbolism and values, it can be found in the pigment itself. While the color white seems devoid of color, spotless and flat, it is actually the total sum of color. That is to say, white is the combination of all colors (as opposed to black as the absence). It’s almost as if within the color white all other colors find unanimity, cohesion, and completion. It is actually differentiated colors that come together in unity. This unity amongst differentiation, marked by the pigments tendency towards imperfection and discoloration, can provide a more holistic symbolism than the Christian values of purity. It creates synthesis and wholeness. It is these themes that make White: Untitled 10 so compelling; there are layers to the true meaning of the color white. White: Untitled 10 provides the signs and we the viewers must find the signifiers; we make our own meaning out of the photographically abstract still life.
I have come to view Fenton’s White: Untitled 10 as a wandering rumination on the color white, on unity versus differentiation, and the unattainability of perfection. These themes are highlighted in the physical manifestation of the objects themselves and within the historical and modern symbolism of the color white in aesthetics. It is this push and pull that makes me feel calm and simultaneously also uneasy, this tension that lends itself to the expansiveness of the sculptural body of Fenton’s photograph. While I can only surmise Fenton’s own associations with the color white as she has since passed, and the purpose and choice behind this monochrome sculpture and photograph, she lends her piece to questions of the impossibility of white and perfection, questions the viewer must decipher and answer. This is the quiet brilliance of White: Untitled 10 that radiates and permeates past the art work. For a minute, I am transported to a place that is nothing and everything, together and without, unified and disparate. It is almost as if the whiteness in White: Untitled 10 will run off the photograph and consume me as well.