It is a strange thing when an art exhibition shifts focus, not because of an artist’s or curator’s vision, but instead as the result of unexpected movement in the world around us. Billy White’s second solo show with SHRINE was postponed for several months following the outbreak of Covid-19, and now as the show is installed and has launched, it has taken on more poignant meanings and a sense of urgency in light of the recent calls to action by the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent massive worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd.
When I recently asked Billy White, who is an African American self-taught artist, what he would like to title his exhibition, he quickly beamed back, “Tell them this is a show by Billy, and I’m alive!” In White’s mind, art shows are for artists who are no longer living, like Vincent Van Gogh, who White has identified with deeply ever since suffering traumatic brain injuries following a childhood accident. He feels they both have endured and conquered adversity during their lives.
White’s subjects are his heroes: musicians, artists and actors who have inspired him since he was young such as Elvis, Joe DiMaggio, Mr. T, and Eddie Murphy, all of whom he renders in highly expressive paintings, drawings and ceramic sculptures. Though his images may appear as abstracted cartoons to us, to Billy these are realistic representations of the pop-culture icons who helped shape his personal identity.
Working intuitively, with complete freedom from the pitfalls of self-doubt, White has no hesitation in his artistic practice; he is always “in the zone,” as they say. His works are direct and function as intimate, unmediated expressions of what and how White perceives the world. While this show was not conceived with the current political moment in mind, it most certainly speaks to it.
Billy White is an artist at the NIAD Art Centre in Richmond, California, which is an art studio and program for individuals with developmental disabilities.