Wendy White and Driveway Culture by Barry Schwabsky From the exhibition catalog Wendy White: Low Pressure, Museum Goch (2021)
Back in 1967 Lawrence Alloway published an essay whose wide-ranging implications have never really been fully explored—not even by Alloway himself. The essay was called “Highway Culture”; its subject was the implications forfine art of a new and profoundly transformative experiencethat affected the modern sense of time and space, whichwas mediated by the culture of the automobile. This was what Alloway called highway culture: “the hardware and sociology generated by automotive transport and the road system. ”This technology and sociology, he observed, gave rise to anew kind of folklore, no longer that of a civilization whose inhabitants were mostly dispersed among rural agricultural settings—they generated what he called an “urban folklore” that in turn became subject matter for artists such as Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg, and Ed Ruscha, among others. But Allan D’Arcangelo was Alloway’s exhibit A.
Something to which Alloway gave insufficient attention was that, at least in the United States, twentieth-century highway culture blurred the rural/urban dichotomy on which he based his ideas; it promoted the growth of suburbs. And it was in the suburbs that the culture of the automobile reached its zenith. Here, where space was less constricted than in the city (you could have a two-car garage) but people were less isola-ted than in the country (it was easy to show off your wheels), the maintenance and improvement of the machine became as its use for work or leisure. In fact, upkeep and upgrading could become leisure activities in themselves. This was what I’d call, in contradistinction to Alloway, driveway culture.
While Alloway’s highway culture was broadly encompassed in the art of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s hard to think of anyone who has incorporated driveway culture as both subject matter and form as thoroughly in their work as Wendy White. Her “Racing Heart” works, with their masses of stickers advertising such automotive product brands as gasoline, motor oil, pistons, exhaust wraps, and oil systems, are only the most evident displays of her immersion in driveway culture. They evoke the fantasy of the gearhead who dreams of transforming his vehicle into a drag racer or NASCAR vehicle; these are the stickers typically plastered all over such vehicles.
But in this light, even White’s most abstract works evidence their affinity with the same impulse to customize a readymade, standard model that is found in American car culture. In this case, it is the readymade format of the rectangular canvas tableau that she accepts as a basis for further styling, accessorizing, and performance enhancement. These custom details (readers of Jacques Derrida might want to call them parerga) can range from the grooved wood-strip framelike edges that, in some of her works from about a decade ago, complement the main action on canvas by defining the edge of only part of it, or even (like an externalized version of one of Peter Halley’s “conduits”) connecting it to another canvas, to the rounded dibond black rainbow corner pieces she’s incorporated into some recent polyptychs—not to mention the more radical transformations such as swapping out printed photographic imagery on neoprene for paint on canvas, or transforming the image into a planar sculptural object hanging from the ceiling rather than against a wall.
The point of all these transmutations of standard painting conventions is not, I think, to offer a social commentary on driveway culture (not even, as one might expect, to point up the masculinist biases that are so deeply embedded in it) any more than it is to underwrite a series of formal variations on historical conventions of modernist painting—though White’s work certainly does both. Instead it seeks out the potential new forms of beauty that can be distilled from strata of our culture that new art rarely perceives and even less so without prejudice.