Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke
Through September 15
by Julie Thomson
With BIG LICK BOOM Wayne White has created his most ambitious installation to date and one that successfully integrates the multiple mediums in which he works. Through bright colors and cartoonish abstraction, he draws viewers into a Looney Toons-esque landscape, leading them into the center of the gallery where they are confronted with a mass of buildings and machines erupting out of the floor. In different directions burst a multi-story brick building, a rotating, cartoonish cloud of smoke with brawling hands and feet emerging from it, a streetscape showing the fronts and backs of four taverns with Old-West-style swinging doors, a black train engine and a giant hand that looms above a marionette. White’s energetic and tumultuous depiction of Roanoke early in its founding slyly captures signature elements of the city while also recalling some of the attitudes and realities that made it what it is.
For this immersive installation he masterfully transformed Styrofoam, cardboard and wood through careful sculpting, but their dimensionality is also heightened by his extensive knowledge of painting. To create this inviting tableaux White drew upon skills he learned while designing sets for various television shows including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, but the large scale of this installation surpasses anything he has attempted previously.
Coming into view as one walks around the gallery, the smartly placed painted words of the installation’s title do not interrupt the feeling of being in this landscape. While his inclusion of these words relates to his thrift store paintings, White strikes an equitable balance between them and this setting. This also marks a departure from the words that dominated the floors and walls in his BIG LECTRIC FAN TO KEEP ME COOL WHILE I SLEEP (2009) installation at Houston’s Rice Gallery.
In BIG LICK BOOM White also integrates his multi-decade interest in puppets. A freestanding locomotive and two accompanying coal cars sit on top of a railroad track painted on the gallery’s floor. These are constructed to be animated by puppeteers at select times during the exhibition’s run. He employs a traditional marionette form for the character of a railroad baron who is controlled by strings dangling from a massive hand (which viewers can manipulate slightly by tugging on a nearby rope). The giant hand only taps this conniving character and his Cubist-inspired face makes him seem even more devious than his intimidating size implies.
Through playful structures and dramatic gestures, White conveys the city’s explosive growth and the dominance of the railroad. Driving around Roanoke today one can’t escape the trains; tracks even run behind the museum. What was once called the Town of Big Lick soon became the city of Roanoke in just ten years and its growth was rapid as it became the junction for the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1882. Around the back, viewers are confronted with the underbelly of a massive, black locomotive engine, whose motorized wheels turn relentlessly. It brings us face-to-face with the machinery that drove the city’s growth and continues to run through the center of its downtown today.
While a cartoonish rendering of a city could make it lose its connection to a certain place, White’s attentiveness to Roanoke’s details allows it to connect powerfully to the city outside the museum’s walls. The Neoclassical cornices and brickwork he included echo details found throughout Roanoke’s downtown. The black-and-white painted advertisements on the walls of various businesses come to mind with his choice of signage for the Roanoke Machine Works. The striped awnings on a number of White’s buildings recall those of the nearby City Market. Rolling wooden hills painted in blues and greens are emphatically flat yet through their alternating colors they still manage to evoke the atmospheric elements of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside. One could even say that his attention to detail relates back to the ways the Ashcan artists studied and came to know the city subjects they painted, even though it’s probably more closely related to the cartoonish cityscapes created by Red Grooms (for whom White was briefly a studio assistant).
After this, his first exhibition at an art museum and his largest environment to date, one wonders where White will go from here. As a broader audience learns about his work through the new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) we can only hope that more curators and museums will give him opportunities and freedom, as the Taubman Museum of Art has, to create what he hasn’t even imagined yet.
Julie Thomson is a writer and art historian who lives in Durham, North Carolina. She has written reviews for …might be good previously and also the Independent Weekly, artsee magazine, and Art Lies.