Artist Dave White discusses his inspirations, his career, and his love of all things Americana. And, just in time for the holidays, the famed painter generously gifts us an exclusive new image [or two], inspired by a recent trip out west.
“It’s a battle,” says Dave White, describing his dynamic painting process on an impossibly sunny September afternoon in his hometown of Liverpool. “It’s almost a perfect reflection of the people and the struggle I’m representing, and battles are won and battles are lost on that canvas.”
The forty-year-old artist has posted a winning record ever since he came on the art scene twenty years ago, first exhibiting his splashy pop art in a group show at London’s venerable Connaught Brown Gallery alongside works from Picasso, Matisse, and Hockney. Since those salad days, the heavily tattooed Liverpudlian has carved out a unique space for himself with a broad catalog depicting everything from cheeseburgers and Air Jordans (he’s an avowed sneaker freak, who actually reimagined the “swoosh” on a pair of Jordans for the WINGS for the Future charity) to American fighter planes, superheroes, rodeo riders, and burlesque dancers. Despite the disparity of subjects, all the work simultaneously evokes Andy Warhol’s taste in iconography and Richard Hambleton’s violently animated street style—or battle—that brings a real sense of urgency and life to White’s painting.
His latest series, “Americana,” delves deeper into this process with a suite of portraits of cowgirls, Native Americans, and various animals in motion—American eagles, mountain lions, coyotes—along with some desert landscapes inspired by a recent trip to Arizona’s Monument Valley. “Being out there was amazing,” says White, who plans to bring the highly celebrated work stateside next year. “I’m very interested in the human struggle for survival. I don’t want to make illustrations of the cavalry chasing Native Americans. I don’t want to cheapen the experience; I just want to explore those frozen moments.”
RL: When did you start painting?
DW: Ever since being a small boy, I’ve loved making images of things that profoundly affected me. I just doodled all day. I was always interested in planes, so I’ve got loads of imagery of military aircraft and stuff like that from when I was a child. The themes that run through my work have always been connected to popular culture.
Have you always had the splashy style?
Yeah. When I was first given oil paint [in] my very first art course, I just connected to it straightaway. The signature explosive application of drips and splats, that’s not something I apply as a sort of facade; that’s literally how I put paint down. I’ve always been interested in that type of stuff. You can trace that back to my first show, which was almost twenty years [ago] to the day. I became very well known for painting portraits of animals, which is [also] what I’m up to now. The work was very thick, very bright, very textured, but they were more humorous because it [came] from me watching animals in zoos interact.
So how’d you get from that to this series?
There’s a number of different style viewpoints. I’m extremely interested in Native American culture and the majesty and respect that animals have, and the parts they play, in that culture.
But this is all taken from wilderness, right?
We were all over Monument Valley and Tucson. It was completely snowy. It was crazy. I went to the old Tucson movie set, and. . .they were all sun-bleached and weather-beaten. That’s all a part of the work. I love the effect of the elements. When I was a child, I used to loved building model kits. I was never interested in making them perfect, but [rather] showing the effect of weather on a tank or plane. I’m a big collector of RRL, funnily enough.
You enjoy history obviously.
It’s very interesting to see things you relate to in movies—trains and such. I’m very interested in the fact that it’s become unfashionable to make Western movies now, and [in] the glory days of the Western, from the fifties to sixties, some of the most interesting ones were based in these locations.
Are you doing anything different or special with these paintings?
Something I’m doing with the animal works and the Native American portraits, especially the watercolors, is including very precious metals like platinum leaf and 24-karat gold leaf, which you won’t even really notice when you see them in the flesh, but as a tool it sort of adds to the majesty and the importance and the respect I have for animal and human life. I’m also very interested in the animation and with the way I put paint down. For the animal works in particular, I was using watercolor, which is a very fluid and dynamic medium. It’s almost alive, and it adds to the realism in a way. I’m very interested in the dynamism of animal life.
“I’m extremely interested in Native American culture and the majesty and respect that animals have, and the parts they play, in that culture.”
– DAVE WHITE
So are the portraits a nod to people you actually met or just to Western art in general?
I completely immersed myself with Westerns and books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the music of Aaron Copland and going out to Arizona. The whole start of it was me being exposed a child to comic books and Western movies, but what I didn’t want it to be was kitsch and pop-y. My previous series are in the pop art vein with expressionism in the application of the paint.
Well, Warhol did make that “Cowboys and Indians” series.
In the past there have been some comparisons by journalists to my work and Andy Warhol’s, and you know what’s interesting is that I’ve never studied any of his work. It was amazing when a friend pointed out to me that he’d done “Cowboys and Indians,” because I didn’t even know that connection. The pop art connection is interesting, though, because he was using a mechanical process to explore the dimension of his subjects, and with my way of applying paint that’s where the comparison ends.
So if you weren’t studying Warhol, who did inspire you?
When I was studying [for] my fine art degree, every lunch hour I went through the library from A to Z, but I came to the conclusion that if you like art, you like art, and you don’t need to know very much about it. It’s more of an instinctual thing, almost like a taste, [a] hunger, a primal feeling. But, saying that, I love Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, Rubens, and for contemporary artists, I think Takashi Murakami is one of the most important painters of the century.
“Art is more of an instinctual thing, almost like a taste, [a] hunger, a primal feeling.”
All of your work seems to be very American. I would never guess you’re from Liverpool. What’s the connection?
It all goes back to what I was exposed to growing up. I’m a massive comic collector and there was all those adverts for selling boxes in the back of DC and Marvel Comics and I was always like, “What do you have to sell to get the Spider-Man figure?” You’d see all these amazing advertisements for Slim Jim, Twinkies, and all these things that just looked so incredible but completely out of our reach. Long before eBay and the Internet, America—from the design of cars, clothes, and planes—has always been an incredible fascination, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the States.
How’d you end up in Monument Valley?
It was something in all the books and short stories, and I was drawn to it from my research. The colors are so exceptional, and I wasn’t going to make these images without the experience of being there. One of the aspects of this series is that while history has completely changed, that landscape—when you’re out in the thick of it— it’s completely timeless. I’m looking to do some residencies, getting access to the Navajo reservations and meeting some genuine people. It’s a really powerful experience, this series, because it’s very organic and the more I get into it, the deeper I’m going. I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Michael Slenske writes regularly for RL about art and culture.