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To Artist, His Child Was The Spark For His Work

April 07, 1986|JANE GREENSTEIN

For John White, practically any experience in life is fair game for art.

His passion for golf has served as inspiration for drawings, paintings and the multimedia art performances in which he combines movement, graphics and storytelling. He also has turned his habit of punctuating his speech with "uh" into a performance piece. And now the raising of his first child is serving as an impetus for performance and visual art.

When White performs "Post Rachelite Stories" at 8 p.m. today in the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman College in Orange, he will talk about, mimic and otherwise humorously broadcast the latest developments in the life of his 2-year-old daughter Rachel. He also will share some of his recent observations of campus life at Chapman. (Art performer Martin Kersels also appears, contributing movements to the stories about Rachel.)

White, 49, has been putting on this type of multimedia performance for 17 years. Born in San Francisco, his original ambition was to be a professional golfer, but by age 25 his attention had turned to art. His foray into performance began in the late '60s while he was studying painting and sculpture at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Reading a book about Allan Kaprow called "Happenings" and taking workshops led by Los Angeles performance artist Steve Paxton helped validate White's ideas about performance art.

"The pop artists who were my influences as a painter--Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg--were using everyday things to create their work, and I was learning that the same could apply to movement. It was a match made in heaven," White said in a recent interview at the Guggenheim Gallery, where some of the art pieces he has used in past performances are included in "Performance Art Sources: A Visual Record," an exhibit running through April 25.

"I was constrained by just using a canvas," White continued. "I wanted to look other places. I wasn't unsatisfied with painting, but I was painting abstractly, and I couldn't say everything with paint. I didn't put figures on the canvas--I felt that was illusionistic (because a three-dimensional figure is reduced to a flat surface) and that didn't have anything to do with how I was thinking. The performance work is more realistic than anything I'll ever get (with paint)."

He often thought of ideas for performances while painting and usually created pieces that could not only be used in performances but also stand on their own as artworks. Among those on display at the gallery are abstract paintings, drawings, sculpture, models, clothing and photographs.

The works, however, have little connection with Monday's performance, with the exception of the "story board" for "Rachel in the Vault," a performance work that serves as a kind of prologue to the new piece. The "board" (a group of miniature models for stage props used in a 1984 performance of "Rachel in the Vault") comically traces White's anxieties about becoming a father at age 47.

Having produced what White estimates to be 300 or 400 different performance pieces, which range in topic from the Watts riots to Pearl Harbor and from guilt to death, White says he plans to hang up his dog food dish, golf balls, masks and other tools of the trade and gradually retire from performance in the next five years.

"It's getting harder now," explained White, who also teaches performance art at UC Irvine. White wishes to do more painting in the studio at his Venice home, which would allow him to spend more time with Rachel. Now that he has a child, he said, "it's hard to go on the road and do performances."

"I've done so many, and I've gone far enough with it that I don't need to prove anything else to myself. But I'm still not a household name," he said, noting that performance artists rarely receive widespread attention without the benefit of record contracts and large audiences.

But White isn't interested in pursuing fame. Along with paying more attention to his daughter and his painting, White also would like to build stage sets.

"I'd rather be more in the background. If somebody comes along and wants to do a work about life, death and birth, I'd really like to do the sets for it," he said.

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