Watie White & The Chicago Project, 2012

W. Keith Brown

In 1863, the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire addressed an audience of artists studying at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The lecture given went on to become one of the most important statements of modernism ever published. In his address, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explained the significance of the everyday and the need for artists to connect their lived experiences, environment, and cultural moment to the visual art they create. For Baudelaire, being an artist meant preserving and representing now-ness, acting as local observer, and creating works that represent cultural time.

Upon entering the Co-Prosperity Sphere, five large black and white portraits hang on two walls each featuring with centered text. They represent a short series called Verbatim Portraits by the artist Watie White. White is an Omaha-based visual artist, educator, and community arts organizer. His work examines the personal and momentary connections between family, friends, and strangers in his community.

The focus of each panel is a person whom the artist has met through a chance encounter. One of the pieces is of White’s smiling Utilities Reader, a round-faced middle-aged woman with eyeglasses gazes out of a scratchy background of cross-hatching. Her name is the title of this piece, Tammy. Tammy is flanked on each side by Bob (viewer’s left) and Clarence (viewer’s right); all three images hang on the main wall of the space staring over the audience, the other two are positioned on the next wall to the right. The text that runs on top of each portrait is appropriated from fragments of a private conversation that took place between the artist and stranger. The text is intentionally disjointed fragmental language and while they are devoid of contextual meaning, they serve as a personal connection between the artist and his subject.

The remaining sections of the exhibition reveal other diverse works—loosely painted iconic book covers, ‘50s and ‘60s racy pulp novel broadsides, a campaign poster series, and a deconstructed studio. All feature friends and family and use appropriated styles for ‘low-brow’ pastiche. In the rear of the space, a make-shift studio space or reading corner for guests is present—paper scraps, sketches, diagrams, and process writing are attached to this space and invite user dialogue.

White’s work is a socially engaged community practice—one that discovers people and uses visual art as a means to increase an everyday profile to a position of distinction. White seems to operate at the location of culture revealing disparate narratives alongside visual and material culture. These temporal encounters seek to carve permanence out of the momentary.

In echoing Baudelaire and invoking Jean Baudrillard and Henry Giroux, I feel that artists in the 21st Century not only want to connect the social and the everyday now-ness of being to their art, but they are also searching for a character—a solution to our current world’s lack of cultural memory and lack of referents. White seems to be on a quest for the real inside so many simulated hyper-realities. And, it is not just White who does this, but a whole host of contemporary artists whose mission is to attach themselves to some kind of genuine cultural fabric that was eroding long before many of us were born.

In this sense, we are all searching for meaning in a late-capital market-driven corporatized commerce-based entertainment state. The postmodern Knowledge of Now that I have written about elsewhere involves simulations, confusion, and contradiction that renders us all marginal in some way or another. Artistic knowledge is integral to comprehending our daily lives under the cultural logic of postmodernity. It is the role of the artist to help guide us through the cultural debris of today and to provide us with concrete experiences, critical questions, and new ways of thinking. In Chicago, we see this kind of work taking shape in a variety of ways and White’s seems to fit in comfortably. This could have something to do with his having studied and lived here for many years. The blue-collar influences in the work connect up with names like Studs Terkel and Tony Fitzpatrick as well as the neighborhood of Bridgeport in which Ed Marzewski’s Co-Prosperity Sphere is anchored.

White’s work is inspired by the social, but involves multiple interpretations and sharp appropriations of meaning. He talks at length about creating portraits that can somehow give his subjects new meaning and different value. He cracks a large grin when he imagines a young person coming back to him thirty years from now to revisit the work. To think of the speed of time and the artwork as a tribute to the moment, White is fixated on what that might mean down the road.

I believe the project is trying to apprehend the real in community settings and document that for the sake of making it personally significant and everlasting. White imagines the large portraits fixed to the sides of buildings in Omaha for the community to see. He is now seeking out inexpensive materials that can last for generations to come. If you have material ideas, please contact the artist.


The Chicago Project is a four-part exhibition featuring the artist Watie White that will take place in three other iterations this year (Co-Prosperity Sphere now, Hyde Park Art Center in March, Southside Hub of Production (ShoP) in April, and Teacher’s Lounge DePaul University in September). White’s exhibition comes to us as part of a recent curatorial effort developed by Stockyard Institute founder and DePaul University professor Jim Duignan. White and his wife lived in Chicago for many years before moving to Omaha in 2006. White’s practice is inextricably linked to a Chicago sensibility complete with notions of community activism and interaction with social environments as subjects for visual art.

As White works on the new art center, Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha with Brigitte McQueen, it is his hope that along with Jim Duignan they can create connections between Chicago and Omaha through artist and educator residencies and showcasing works from each city’s art scene. The series of installations seeks to build cultural bridges between Chicago and Omaha by offering up relevant ideas on socially engaged art and education practices.

Through February 17

Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219-21 South Morgan Street, Chicago

W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, researcher, and writer who co-founded the CVAE Club, collaborates with Stockyard Institute, and serves as Director of Education at the Evanston Art Center.