Billy White, “Coming to America” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches (all images courtesy of Shrine)

Billy White, who is in his mid-50s, makes art at NIAD, which is located in Richmond, California. The NIAD Center for Art and Disabilities offers around 60 artists with disabilities a place to work. While White’s art is widely known through the NIAD website, the exhibition Billy White: Coming to America at Shrine (August 3 – September 9, 2018) is his debut solo show in New York. There are 10 paintings — all loosely brushed, cartoony portraits done in acrylic — and two painted ceramic figures that stand around a foot high.

According to the gallery press release:

As a young boy, Billy White was hit by an automobile, an accident that that left him in a coma. After awaking, doctors and his family soon realized that he had traumatic brain injury and only limited mobility. Billy has mentioned numerous times feeling an affinity to Vincent van Gogh – He feels the Dutch artist’s unsuccessful romantic overtures and missing ear are similar to his own travails.

Given that White is an African American male born around the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and that he feels a kinship with van Gogh, identifying with him as a damaged hero who is unlucky in love, his context for artistic kinship seems to be more personal and experiential than cultural or racial.

Billy White, “Untitled (cowboy)” (2018), painted and glazed clay, 14 x 4.5 x 4 inches

The exhibition’s title, Coming to America, is also the title of a romantic comedy from 1988 starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. In the film, Murphy is a spoiled prince of a fictional African country, Zamunda, who comes to America in order to find a wife. He and his friend Semmi (Hall) disguise themselves as foreign students and rent a squalid apartment in Queens. White’s painting, “Coming to America” (2017), shows a simple, round face that is brown and gray and topped by a yellow crown.

Billy White, “Vincent van Gogh” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

In the red and yellow painting, “Vincent van Gogh” (2017), White presents a frontal view of the Dutch artist. Working with a limited palette – which recalls his subject’s experiments with color – he depicts the artist with a red Afro. In a second painting of van Gogh (also 2017), White depicts his subject in profile seemingly adjusting his broad-brimmed hat, and spells out the artist’s name on the painting’s surface. White’s transformation of van Gogh into a man with a red Afro is fantastic on many levels. It is one of those imaginative acts that make you smile, so pure and direct is its power.

Billy White, “Vincent van Gogh” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

There is an untitled portrait of a man from 2017 wearing a baseball hat, whose eyes are aligned in profile on the same side of his nose, like a 1930s Picasso, and, as its title indicates, one of “Fred Flintstone with Bloody Mouth” (2017). All of White’s subjects are male. Flintstone is a cartoon caveman, a parody of machismo, but why is his mouth bleeding? Masculinity, maleness, and success – these are some of the themes White is thinking about, consciously or unconsciously, in this show.

Billy White, “Fred Flintstone with Bloody Mouth” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 44 x 33 inches

There is something sweet, direct, humorous, and poignant about these works, as well as a touching sense of vulnerability. There are also moments of inventiveness, as in “Untitled” (2017), an anonymous portrait of a man in a black fez, resembling World War II-era “Kilroy” graffiti, in which a U-shaped line joins the two round eyes, turning it into a nose. The conjunction seems unintentionally phallic and endearingly funny. The two glazed ceramic figures on pedestals near the gallery’s front window, both wearing black, slab-like hats and clad in red, are not to be missed. The fact that White cares little if anything about current styles and acceptable subjects is worth considering. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the art world needs Billy White (and other innocents like him) far more than he needs the art world.

Billy White: Coming to America continues at Shrine (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 9.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...