Wendy White encourages us to reconsider our ideas about what belongs in an artwork, and she does so by evoking memories of adolescent belonging and exclusion. In what ways do our own judgments of taste mirror the sort of judgments that high school cliques pass on non-members? White's faux wood-grain backgrounds and sgraffito-like foregrounds evoke the classic American high school milieu by suggesting desks into which various symbols and messages have been inscribed. One such message, on Bored (2020), reads "I don't even go here," a reference to a line in the Tina Fey-directed film Mean Girls (2004) about high school cliques, which later inspired an internet meme. Interpreted differently, White's use of the phrase "I don't even go here" represents a playful anthropomorphizing of the painting itself, where one cluster of marks appears to self-consciously doubt its own place within the larger composition. Do standardized symbols of rainbows, hearts, and clouds "belong" in sophisticated formal compositions? Why should they belong any less than a splotch of paint or an abstract brushstroke, elements which, arguably, have become equally clichéd by their overuse? "There are no new marks," White says, "only new combinations." By recontextualizing marks and symbols associated with American youth culture, White encourages us to consider the emotional and psychological drives that such marks and symbols satisfy: the drive to affirm one's existence, to declare one's love, to be remembered, and to belong.
Although memories of adolescence may be our entry point into these works, the drives to belong and to be remembered are not the exclusive property of adolescence. They transcend age, just as they transcend time, place, and culture. The palm trees in White's Three Palms (Tami + Gina) (2020), for instance, are copied from petroglyphs that Native Hawaiian migrants to Salt Lake City, Utah, painted on the side of Salt Mountain over one-hundred years ago. Although the nearby town they built became a ghost town after they returned to Hawaii a generation later, the images of tropical palm trees that they painted on the snowy rocks survive to this day as a record of an unfulfilled desire to belong. White uses other Hawaiian petroglyph symbols, as well, including the Rainbow Man, who in his original context represents the bridge between Heaven and Earth. By juxtaposing the Rainbow Man symbol with other symbolic representations of rainbows, such as those seen in rainbow-shaped stickers and rainbow-colored suspenders, the artist encourages us to reflect on the multiplicity of meanings that rainbows and other natural phenomena inspire. The motifs White explores—hearts, clouds, rainbows, and trees—are all derived from nature yet filtered through language and culture. By imagining these elements carved onto the same school desk or painted onto the same mountain rock, we can experience them as a chorus of voices, which, despite all their apparent cacophony, represent a common desire to be heard, understood, loved, and remembered. —text by Logan Royce Beitmen