Cate White paints scenes of people she knows. Full of fantastical imagery and colors and a pathos reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s greatest work, the paintings have made their way into the upper echelons of the art world and pop culture. A few years ago, the TV series Transparent featured White’s canvases in an episode. And in the current rendition of its triennial “Bay Area Now” series, YBCA is showcasing a series of White’s paintings, including Rory and His Mother and His Z, which depicts an African-American man on a graffiti-strewn street with his car and his mom.
Cate White is white. She and Rory, the man in her painting, are like family. White is a white Oakland artist who feels at home in marginalized African-American communities — something that challenges people. At YBCA, White says, two young African-American art-goers disapproved of Rory and His Mother and His Z and White’s other work upon discovering who White was. The artist says the issues she’s bringing forth in her paintings are as much about class as race, and “the feedback I get is generally divided more along class lines than race lines.” White grew up in Mendocino County in what she has called “the backwoods culture of guns, four-by-fours, and meth.
“There’s a podcast that two Black girls do, and they were really uncomfortable with my [YBCA] paintings when they realized I was white,” White tells SF Weekly. “One of them said something like, ‘I saw the Black figures and there was something uncomfortable about them. And when I looked up who the artist was, that explained my discomfort.’ I thought it was interesting that her belief was that white people would automatically portray Black people in an untruthful, stereotypical, and dehumanizing way. I reached out to thank them for spending all this time on my paintings and to talk more about it.
“It brought up questions for me like, ‘What about the Black figures made her uncomfortable?’ ” she continues. “If the majority of people of color who saw my paintings were uncomfortable with the way the Black figures are represented, I would take heed. I’d say, ‘All right, I must have some “white gaze thing” going on.’ But I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Blackness. My Black figures are really just individual people. I’m representing people I know. Showing someone’s vulnerability might be disturbing for people who want to see black people as only a symbol of resistance or power.”
As it is, White’s emphasis on broad scenes that incorporate images of the everyday has parallels in art history. In the late 1800s, the French art establishment criticized French painters like Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas for focusing on “ordinary” figures, including those who were clearly part of an underclass. Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker is a good example. More recently, the African-American painter Kehinde Wiley has made a name for himself by stylizing portraits of Black men and women in traditionally regal settings. White extends the boundaries of these artists’ work, so in her 2015 painting Dre Looking at Me Looking at the Mike Brown Memorial, White — who ventured to Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of Brown’s racially tinged killing — portrays a scene in which police cars occupy the same open corridor with a Black, cigarette-smoking driver, and a nude woman on her phone.
“The people in the paintings don’t think they’re different from me,” White says. “And I’m motivated to bring the perspective and perceptions about race and representation and power from outside of the art world to the conversation in the art world. I’m painting my surroundings, my friends, and my intimates — people who are part of my daily life and my consciousness, many of whom are Black, who aren’t from the middle class, educated art world but more from the street. The perception of race and representation is so different there than the way people receive it in more privileged atmospheres.
“These paintings,” White adds, “are a mirror for people’s projections. They challenge the most liberal among us. A lot of time people will see a painting of mine and feel a certain way and think the painting is saying what it is they’re feeling — that it’s doing something bad. But if they think, ‘This is how I’m reading the painting, why is that?,’ then it becomes ripe for people to check out their own unconscious assumptions about race and power and the possibilities of relationships across class lines and race lines. Relationships across race lines is no problem if you’re in the same class. But crossing class lines — that’s where power is really complicated. People are afraid to cross those lines, because if you do, then you have one foot in the chaos of poverty. And if you’re going to be a good friend, you have to be a part of that.”
White, who is in her 40s, paints in a style that seems to borrow from so many genres, including comic-book art, but is its own thing. In Rory and His Mother and His Z, she makes Rory’s sweatshirt partly transparent, so we see the wall behind him and the front of his red car. His hands also meld with the vehicle. White paints worlds that are complicated and challenging beyond their choice of people. If Rory looks upset, he was.
“That came out of a deeply shared wound that Rory and I have,” says White, who received an MFA from John F. Kennedy University in 2012. “We bonded eight years ago now over suffering we had. He had a real estrangement and pain in his relationship with his mother. And so did I. So painting that painting — I watched him go from being a lost drug addict on the street to the most enlightened person I’ve ever met. He had a spiritual transformation with no struggle. It was like grace bestowed upon him. I went with him through that journey, and he ended up getting this [Datsun] 280Z, restored it — a trophy of his new life that he showed to his mother, and all the pain was still there. That’s a snapshot of him showing his mom his new car.”
The eighth iteration of “Bay Area Now” features another artist whose work extends the boundaries of his art form. In the 23-minute film Psyman’s Acres, David Bayus animates a futuristic world where a mechanical farmer on a distant, failing planet tries like hell to appease an artificial master that needs his crops to live. It’s Grant Wood’s American Gothic meets Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now meets all sorts of other dystopian nightmares. (Bayus says two dramas — Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven and 1955’s The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum — were particularly big influences.)
Psyman’s Acres, which is Bayus’ fifth animated work, is a visually sumptuous film of odd insects, crop fields, beautifully haunting thunderstorms, and a narrative about imposed crisis that takes the farmer through fire, wind, and other elements that are truly biblical and truly end-of-the-world. Like Shiva Ahmadi’s Ascend and Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia, two art films that SF Weekly recently championed, Psyman’s Acres is one of the most original works to screen at a Bay Area art institution.
Here’s one of the radical things about Bayus’ work: He’s a self-taught filmmaker and animator who began in 2012 by consulting YouTube tutorials. At the San Francisco Art Institute, where he graduated with an MFA in 2010, Bayus focused on painting, which he also did as an undergraduate at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In fact, Bayus was almost cornered into learning animation because he had no studio space for painting or sculpture. He turned to a more compact medium that he could play with on a computer.
“It was a typical San Francisco Bay Area artist’s story where a studio is getting bulldozed,” Bayus says. “I was working out of my small one bedroom on Market Street, and I had no room to paint and no space to work in, so a friend recommended that I do mockups for potential photo-type set-ups for pieces using this 3D modeling program. It was free, you could download it, and I started working in it and quickly took to it.”
“Bay Area Now 8,” which opened in September and continues through March, surveys artists whose work, YBCA believes, should reach a wider audience. Taravat Talepasand, whose art delves into issues of gender, politics, and Iranian-American identity, is another notable artist in YBCA’s current edition. Westoxicated incorporates a neon shape resembling the window or dome of a mosque. Inside that dome: A painting of an Iranian woman in sunglasses, torn jeans, and a loose scarf that reveals her right breast. Like the art of Cate White and David Bayus, Talepasand’s ignites a fiery response, whether or not you want to admit it.
“Bay Area Now 8” through March 24, at YBCA, 701 Mission St. $10; 415-978-2700 or ybca.org.