Moisten your finger with your tongue, we’re going to flick through a brisk few pictures: a pink conch shell in a girl’s bedroom leaks a fleshy liquid that gently oozes over the telephoning teenager, encrusting her like a gaudy cellphone in glittering pink rhinestones; a (different) newly teenaged girl stands astride a remarkably similar looking (but mannishly larger) freshly minted transwoman, a neutral gridded background behind them, the camera cutting off their bodies just before their equally budding breasts; another girl, in the warm hues of 35mm film, boredly watches television, the room and her isolated malaise lit with its spooky, ethereal glow; two cartoon girls engage in the problematics of desire in capitalism while mall shopping, the critique so subtle, so plump with the patois of “like” and “totally” an earnest viewer could mistake it as an endorsement.
A post-Marxist critique of late capitalism with the thrill of permanently unrealized transgression, Los Angeles-based artist Charlie White in recent years has been dissecting with a methodical precision the rather sophisticated modes of how the modern age uses the bodies of young girls to do business, not in the greasy backwaters of porn but firmly in the mainstream. This is uncomfortable business and is done with nary a droplet of gung-ho political righteousness. Ethics surely, but White’s research, his process, is so devoted and systematic that it would almost smack of the anthropological except that his results are not the empirical data and taut generalizations of the soft sciences, but the strange often uncomfortable ambiguities of art.
This research began with an intensive two-year-long survey of one teenage girl as she lived out her working class life on the outer, cheap and recent edge of the Southern California sprawl. Friends, her boyfriend, her brothers, her mother, endlessly photographed and documented, and nearly every weekend, White himself traveled to collect images and gauge the life of his subject. Whilst doing this, White simultaneously purchased every magazine meant for girls with a blonde on the cover. Both sets of research (and others) gave birth to the litter of images flicked through above, realized through wall-work, film, animation, and performance. Rather than being presented as documentary, White’s exacting research parented the set of fictive works whose manifestations can comfortably inhabit both the space of an art gallery as well as the venues of more commercial entertainment. White makes us aware just how really uncomfortable the industry around teenage girls is: us watching them become them as they watch themselves and often try to buy their way into the right representation of becoming and on and on in circulating tensions.
One last and latest image: a glass wall in an art gallery separates a benched crowd watching a crew of grown ups, directed by White, cycle through a hundred strong army of 13-16 year old mostly blonde, aspirant girls as they try out for the role of the quintessential “California Girl,” to be displayed for a month on a billboard. The audiences, shifts and fidgets, a few stage moms and dads mixed in. The girls go through grooming, hair fluffed, model release signed, and the audience watches each one sit before the camera, a pink gridded background behind them. Her mouth slightly ajar, eyes gazing out, blank, curious, inquisitive, and the camera clicks, punctuating the performance, the resulting image incidental.