Eric White Examines His Childhood through the Lens of Classic American Cars

Eric White Examines His Childhood through the Lens of Classic American Cars

08/13/2019

Eric White has an obsession with painting cars from the 1970s. But the accomplished artist’s reverence for and reverential renderings of Malaise Era vehicles isn’t some sort of retro-millennial Radwood fetish. Rather, it’s about re-examining and unpacking his childhood. A 50-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, adjunct professor at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, and recipient of a prestigious New York Foundation for the Arts grant, White was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about 45 minutes west of Detroit. He grew up connected to the Motor City, where his grandfathers worked in the domestic auto industry and both sets of his grandparents lived. But his experience in a college town—Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan—offered up other vehicular perspectives.

“We had a Toyota Corolla wagon growing up,” White says, standing in a proscenium defined by a trio of his meticulous 7-by-12-foot car paintings in New York City’s Grimm Gallery, where his latest solo show was mounted earlier this year. “And that’s one of my memories from that time. In Ann Arbor, it wasn’t such a big deal. But when we’d go to Detroit in a mustard yellow Corolla, I remember sitting in the back seat just looking around and not seeing any other Japanese cars.”

Tall and thin, White leans from foot to foot, as if seeking groundedness, while scratching at his salt-and-pepper beard. “I don’t know why I was so hyperaware of it, but all I saw were these giant brown boats everywhere, and our car was half the length of any of them, and it was just a really strange feeling,” he says. “I remember feeling a little bit nervous.”

Those looming baroque land barges and the combination of anxiety, confusion, and awe they inspired clearly had a profound effect on White, enough to become the subject of his recent paintings. Hung under the evocative title “Triage: Relics” and set entirely in an imaginary but painstakingly rendered world, the cars exist in and evoke a strangely liminal state.

“The paintings take place in 1973, so no object in any of them is from any later than that year, and a lot of them, pop culture stuff, is precisely from that year,” he says, walking us through the detailed and at times metaphysical iconography littered throughout the work: album covers, books, billboards, magazines, fast food, wrappers, vegetables, symbols, and strange little shrines.

The paintings also feature a thin, barefoot young woman in a blue dress, poised, according to White, on “the line between having a spiritual breakthrough and a mental breakdown” and representing, in some ways, his mother. They are set in the parking lot of a domineering concrete Brutalist monolith (based on Denver General Hospital, designed by Eugene Sternberg and completed in 1967), shown from multiple angles. But mainly they’re of cars. In fact, the three large canvases are explicitly named for the vehicles in their foregrounds: “1968 Pontiac Grand Prix,” “1973 Plymouth Fury,” and “1971 Ford Torino 500.”

You might recognize a pattern in the choice of these vehicles. “I wanted to have some sort of code with the cars,” White says. “It took me such a long time to crack it, just to get something that I was happy with. But I settled on one of each from the Big Three—General Motors, Chrysler, Ford.” In honor of his iconoclastic mother, a Toyota Corolla station wagon appears in the background of all three paintings. “I wanted the Toyota to be an afterthought.”

“I used to remember thinking how hideous these cars look to me. Now, I think they’re just gorgeous, especially now that every [new] car looks like tennis
shoes.”

The painting style is expert and distinctive, a meditative and slightly surrealist iteration of the photorealistic work of artists such as Richard Estes and John Bechtle, whose painstakingly rendered 1960s and 1970s street scenes of the era’s parked cars grew out of pop art’s sly appropriation of consumer culture: a simultaneous celebration and skewering of America’s disposable excess. White treats these ornate, drab-colored, four-wheeled land barges with the kind of esteem and attention to character that 19th century portraitist John Singer Sargent reserved for the formally dressed doyennes of high society.

“I used to remember thinking how hideous these cars look to me,” White says. “Now, I think they’re just gorgeous, especially now that every [new] car looks the same and they all look like tennis shoes. [These old cars] just look like works of art now.”

The year 1973, when White’s paintings are set, was an inflection point for the automotive industry. The OPEC oil embargo occurred that year, and gasoline became scarce, even rationed, driving demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles like those imported from Japan. After years of discussion—largely resisted or ignored by domestic manufacturers—new tailpipe and safety regulations also went into effect, forcing a shift in design and engineering.

During this time, White’s maternal grandfather worked as a mechanical engineer for an automotive supplier, and his paternal grandfather worked on the line at the Dodge Main plant. These changes seemingly would have been troubling for his immediate family—as was the dissolution of his parents’ marriage at the same time—but White still finds the era comforting. “There’s a certain warmth and safety about that time, to me,” he says. “Everything was brown, and avocado, and rusty orange. And even though our home was chaotic and even though I was kind of a freaked-out child, I also felt safe in that moment.”

He considers this further, staring into the glistering flank of his white Grand Prix. “I was five that year. That’s where you’re kind of cooked, psychologically.”

Despite this fondness for his childhood, White does admit to experiencing a terrorizing youthful experience in a vehicle. Back then, parents used to routinely leave their kids alone in the car when they were out running errands, and one afternoon, when White’s father went into a store to buy some beer, he left White and his younger brother out in the parking lot in his AMC Javelin. “He must not have put the emergency brake on, and as my brother jumped in the driver’s seat and started messing with stuff, it popped out of gear and we started rolling down this hill,” White recalls. “I was, like, ‘OK, we’re going to die now.”’

Fortunately, a bystander saw the incident in process and was somehow able to get into the rolling car and bring it to a stop. White returned to the scene years later only to discover his childhood recall was wildly inaccurate. Although he remembered a steep hill and a busy intersection, when he arrived, “there was barely a slope, and the streets were empty.” (In homage, White has also included a tawny Javelin in each of his large paintings.)

The evanescent nature of memory, location, and emotion—especially as it relates to time spent inside an automobile—has long been a theme of White’s work. Some years back, he completed a series of paintings all depicted from the viewpoint of someone in the back seat of a car. “A lot of those I was pulling from movie references, finding scenes from movies where the perspective is inside the car,” White says. He collected these images for years, compulsively taking film photos, digital photos, and screen grabs of movies off of a TV or computer screen.

When asked to explain his attraction to this setting, he pauses, as if recalling something frightening. “They represented an intimate moment of being in a car, a sort of claustrophobic moment,” he says. But as seems typical with White and his work, there’s a deeper psychological motivation behind this, as well. “I also like the over-the-top fakeness, especially in the early movie scenes. It ties into the idea of illusion and perception, this kind of invented reality on the screen and how that relates to our projection of consciousness.”

In addition to these ideas of the ersatz nature of existence and the questioning of reality, cars also hold a meaning that is at once deeper and more elemental for White. “They’re so tied into who we are as Americans,” he says, “the power of them, and the way in which they’re an extension of ourselves, an extension of our body.” This may be part of the reason why so many American artists have used the car as subject matter and as a medium.

White’s work has found broad appeal, having appeared in exhibitions at the Laguna Art Museum, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Museo de la Ciudad de México, and the MACRO Museum in Rome, among others. But he is also well known for his celebrity collectors, who include actors David Arquette, Leonardo DiCaprio, Courteney Cox, Viggo Mortensen, and Balthazar Getty. White also did the cover art for Tyler, the Creator’s latest album, Flower Boy.

White met his current partner, Patricia Arquette, through her brother David, after David purchased a painting from the artist. “To me, there’s a beauty in his work that’s nostalgic but also futuristic,” David Arquette says. “So I think he’s drawn to the automobile as a vehicle of transportation but also as an emotional place, a place where you have great times and horrible times. Some of your greatest memories are in automobiles, and people’s lives end in an automobile sometimes.”

“To me, there’s a beauty in his work that’s nostalgic but also futuristic,” actor David Arquette says. “Some of your greatest memories are in automobiles, and people’s lives end in an automobile sometimes”.

As important as the automobile is and has been to White in his life and work, he is not a car guy in any real way. He does remain loyal to Toyota and keeps a RAV4 by his studio in Brooklyn. “I have it so I can carry stuff around, and it’s amazing for that,” he says.

However, he has recently been tempted by a black 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass coupe he spotted at a body shop next door to his workspace. “It was 10 grand, and it was in really good shape, and it had just been reupholstered, and they’d put a new engine in it,” White says, with increasing breathlessness. “But I thought, I would look like such a [jerk] driving it here in New York.” He shrugs. “In L.A., I’d be okay, although my friends would still give me [crap] for sure: ‘He’s having a midlife crisis.’ ”

We suggest he can tell them he’s just driving it for research, something to do with his next painting series. White grins and cocks his head. “I might want to take a break from painting cars,” he says.

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