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Degrees of Whiteness

A gallery exhibit highlights the possibilities of that most neutral of colors

The Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery on Blossom Street is located in one of the few remaining non-town-homed, verdant patches located between Memorial Drive and Washington Avenue. On these several blocks, old wooden bungalows hide from the heat under subtropical foliage and the ditches are filled with Louisiana iris. There's something intensely satisfying about leaving the steamy, overgrown green heat of this patch of Houston and walking into the cool, spare whiteness of "White Hot."

The aptly titled "White Hot" is a group show, with works that are, well, pretty much white. White light is the result of the entire visible light spectrum combined, but white usually connotes the absence of things, a neutral starting ground, a blank page, something to which color is to be added. Showstopping red, omnipresent in urban environments, is the first color our eye sees. Walking into a show where you have to adjust to very subtle shades of white takes effort. But once you fine-tune your vision to these narrow parameters, a remarkably rich range of work lies within their boundaries.

That point was driven home in a Robert Ryman retrospective I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York ten years ago. Ryman is the poster boy of white art, a minimalist artist noted for his production of exclusively white paintings. Seeing scattered examples of his work doesn't convey the unexpected richness of his preoccupation. The MOMA exhibition was filled with variations on the theme of white paint applied to a surface, yielding surprising results. Glossy enamel pooled on a reflective metal surface and thick, chalky paint dragged over the dense, rough weave of canvas became strangely riveting -- all of it white, but all of it different.

In the Houston show, once you recalibrate your vision to extremely subtle differences, "White Hot" becomes satisfying. Works you might not notice in another context become more powerful when grouped with like-minded comrades. They aren't being shouted down by scene-stealing bright colors. Some shaky works are shored up by the supportive environment and the gallery's trademark spare, airy placement of objects. Ultimately it all works together to create a pleasant show.

Four small paper pieces are grouped together, all consisting of faint lines on a pale ground. While they are formally similar, they are remarkably diverse in both impetus and effect. Chad Sager's Null (2003) has fine, pale blue horizontal lines on white paper, carefully and ironically mimicking a page of notebook paper. Brook Stroud's One Hundred and Ten (White) (2003) emerges from an obsessive conceptual program. Neatly drawn horizontal lines (110, I assume, but I'm not counting) in white pencil accumulate on what looks like cardboard from the back of a notepad.

Stroud's dogged personal mark-making gives way to a 1998 Agnes Martin print. Martin's devotion to spiritual effects of spare geometry emerges in a lithograph with a mellow, slightly smudgy white ground. A rectangle, vertically divided by evenly spaced lines and bisected by a single one, has a calm, powerful poise.

Next door, Martin's higher plane is both countered and complemented by Eric Davis's Exhausted Lightning (2003). The title is taken from an Ed Hirsch poem in homage to Agnes Martin. The gouache drawing has barely discernible vertical bands of white with a slightly greenish tint. Rather than the denouement of a thunderstorm's drama, the inspiration seems to be the banal fluorescence of a Wal-Mart. Maybe that's where old lightning goes to die. This subgrouping of works has a nice mix of artists young and old, as 20-something Sager hangs alongside the venerable 90-something Martin.

On an adjoining wall are two almost identically sized squares of white. But again, work that is visually similar turns out to be conceptually -- as well as materially -- at polar opposites. Meg Webster's 1994 square of paper has a thick, softly sensuous coating of white beeswax. The wax has a soft matte sheen and a faint honey smell. (The front of the frame lifts off to allow the viewer to contemplate as well as sniff the surface.)

Contrasting with this pristine square of organic material is Tom Sachs's white canvas. Closer inspection reveals it to be plastered with overlapping segments of white duct tape. The connotations of duct tape in American society need no explanation. A recent duct tape piece in Lawndale's "Big Show" used various kinds of tape, duct included, to create a picture of some chickens, but the kitschy image plus kitschy material resulted in a kitsch overkill. Here we see the subtleties of the surface but then there's the punch-line title, Rice (1997). You realize that pieces of duct tape piled on top of each other look remarkably like a close-up image of rice grains. The work is witty, yet stupidly pretty with its unexpected beauty conjured from cheap material.

The 3-D works in the show also fare well. Joe Havel's White Shirt (2003) is a balled-up man's dress shirt. The quotidian object is made epic in bronze with a chalky white patina. Darryl Lauster's 2003 cast of a candle stand in frosted acrylic is a pale and ghostly little object that seems like it ought to have melted in the heat.

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