When I popped in on Cara Despain and Mary Toscano preparing their collaborative show Into the White on the white walls at Kayo Gallery the day before the May 21 opening, they were not working on the placement of their drawings and assemblages but on configuring the lighting. But then that makes sense: For an exhibit in which all the works are white, in which figures so delicately play against negative space, proper illumination is key.
Despain (a regular City Weekly freelance contributor) and Toscano met in 2005 and partner for a project in an art class at the University of Utah. They became friends and have worked together since. Their first duo show, they say, is based on “similar aesthetics” of line drawings on paper. Into the White is an ingenious idea for an art show: a meditation on the color white, an exploration that is in turn contemplative and playful, that induces viewers to re-examine a color that has so many cultural associations that it might be called by scholastics as “over determined.”
In her travels to places like Art Basel in Miami last year, Despain found in similarly hued works that white is the new … well, white. “It was like taking the temperature of the art world,” she recalls—an interesting way to put it, since the slight shifts in tonal color in these works create a mini-spectrum, an emotional range between melancholy, the distance of remembrance and, finally, a kind of renewal.
Toscano explains, “We enjoyed working with the subtleties and ambiguities of the color. There’s a narrative we both employ, but it’s not overt.” In a sense this show isn’t a collaboration so much as a convergence of their works and aesthetics, even to the way they are aligned on the walls of Kayo: Toscano’s on the west and Despain’s on the east, panels leading from the entrance on either side to the back wall of the gallery, where the images and repetitive elements of both artists literally converge and collide.
Despain’s drawings/paintings and paper cutouts of horses—like movie stills depicting the story of the evolution of the horse in North America—lead down the right side. Toscano’s drawings on paper, framed by white paint against the off-white walls of Kayo, depict a surreal narrative hinting at the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the hero trying to rescue his lover from the underworld. Flocks of letterpress paper birds swirl above Toscano’s wall like a Greek chorus, directing us to the back wall where bird and horse heads, carved from foam and plaster, run together and seem to disappear into the white of that surface.“In discussing the show we kept coming to, ‘Then we’ll do the back wall,’ as if it’d happen magically,” laughs Toscano. “I like to have control over the elements, at times to make them disappear,” explains Despain. The play of daylight in the room sometimes lets the paper cutouts attain the illusion of three-dimensionality, but it makes their getting the house lighting under control for their Friday-evening opener even more problematic. Their one indulgence—a rush of shredded paper erupting in the gallery’s storefront window—is like an explosion of ticker tape, an embodiment of time itself. And you could view their works in the reverse direction, from back wall toward the entrance, as though the river of time could run in reverse, or these narratives could mean something slightly different when read back to front. That’s part of their design as well. Either way frustrates the natural desire to traverse the gallery space in a circle.
“There is a tension we intended in these works, to challenge the viewer,” admits Toscano. It’s as bifurcated and ambiguous as the threads of a historical narrative, yet as personal and intimate as a psychological casebook. Something about the limited color palette, and their subtle shifts of shading within that range, move past the easy associations with the color: beauty, purity, even white as the lack of color, to a much more complex dialogue with the viewer, and it’s a remarkable artistic achievement.
“I think if we had introduced color it would have had a violence about it,” ponders Despain. Not that white is something fragile or inviolate here. The shifts within this palette intimate at the weight of loss and the possibility of renewal where the source of the wound isn’t immediately apparent. As it is, like the best art, they succeed at creating a world, or the memory of a world, and in this constellation of beings, it’s as though white in all its variations were the only color that existed.
INTO THE WHITE
177 E. 300 South
Through June 15