Casper White – A Painter of our Times

Ian McKay, Art North, April 15 2019

Throughout the late-1990s and 2000, I spent several years researching what may be termed ‘sites of lived pleasure’; sites, that is, that in some way were connected to the urban dance culture in the UK. First written up as a book-length study for Free Association Books, in the form of Locating The Wild Zone (2001), it was a project that I returned to again ten years later, eventually publishing a further book-length study titled Notes From the Wild Zone: Rethinking a Psychogeography of the Dance Culture(2012). Based upon a premise (stated by Chris Stanley in his essay Not Drowning but Waving) that ‘the expression of dissent within contemporary youth cultures occurs in [spaces] nominated as deregulated’, both books sought to investigate the built environment in which traces of dance cultural activity could be found.

According to Stanley, the Wild Zone that I referred to was that urban environment that is commonly ‘fenced off as the neglected space of industrial erosion […] the alternative space of urbanisation as an affirmative postmodern wilderness.’ An inevitability of urbanisation in terms of the relationship between economics and governmentality, as Stanley put it, ‘the Wild Zone reflects both the impossibility of control within the global city and also alternative patterns of consumption.’


One of the immediate problems of writing on the development of dance cultural activity at the time that I was, centred upon the nature of both its apparent invisibility, and also the passing modes of ‘style culture’ through which it was expressed. Here was a youth sub-culture that was constantly morphing into something else, partially as a means to retain its autonomy beyond the realm of organised leisure. As ethnographic studies, it became clear in both books that I wrote on this subject that the traces left behind by the sub-culture I was writing about revealed far more about the dance culture than the self-effacing (or sometimes wilfully disruptive) voices of those within it. In its very illusiveness, there was always a problem in trying to name what was effectively unstable and in a state of constant recalcitrant flux.


The resulting books, therefore, concentrated on the common locations where the lived pleasures of the dance culture erupted and then often, promptly, disappeared again, if only to re-emerge elsewhere, elsewhen, according to the particular economies of expression and survival as a sub-culture. What I found was a tension in two particular environments; a tension, that is, between the darksome ‘back street’ culture and that of the ‘centre-city’ of organised leisure. This was a time known for numerous legislative sleights of hand intended to bring the dance culture within the leisure industries of the mainstream (parent) culture.


If, as Roland Barthes would have it, the city is a text, I argued, then maybe one could penetrate the skin of its page and read the mindset of that city. Writer and artist Jamie Atherton had done just that in several texts that preceded the emergence of his excellent journal Failed States that latterly has emerged as a tour de force in the ongoing theoretical examination of the spaces we occupy, and the uses we put them to. In 1992, Atherton had written on the sites of industrial erosion that youth sought out for their lived pleasures in a post-Thatcherite landscape of smashed dreams and trashed aspirations:


… through the ornate grid of shadows cast by the skeletons of the Victorian gasworks [...] the scenery changed to mile upon mile of brown brick council estate. I was passing through the zones untouched by the arteries of the underground, mythological places, places you don’t visit without purpose, places you don’t knowingly pass through or under.


It was in such places that Atherton established his understanding of the micropolitan terrain that simply wasn’t evident in the tame zone or the centre-city of the late 1990s:

Like the countryside it is sinister, and like the city it has sleaze. A police notice appealed for information regarding the rapist of a jogger earlier this month (horror screams out suddenly from beneath the bridge’s dank arch), and a little further on I discovered a pornographic manuscript, a number of typed A4 pages stapled together, lying on the verge.


The double entendre (on the verge of what we ask?) here abutted uncomfortably with the darksome underbelly of what might be termed the Dickensian carnivalesque. In the detritus of a canal-side wasteland, Atherton had found not just a record of violent crime and personal vices; here was also a catalogue of collective pleasures strewn amidst the weeds and grass too. The litter of this wasteland was evidence of the dance culture passing through; water bottles, empty Rizla packets, polythene drug bags, flyer upon flyer once thrust into sweaty palms as clubbers emerged into the dawn light outside back street venues.

‘The sight of club flyers autumnally littering the pavements early in the morning,’ Atherton wrote, is evidence of ‘another world viewed with the resigned disposition of an archaeologist who does not expect to ever see the full truth of the fragments he pieces together’ – all of these items were seen as evidence of individuals who had passed through these environs, open to the psychic ambience of cultural spaces that might merit investigation – But how? Where Atherton went in search of the ‘lost souls’ that he once glimpsed from the top of his high-rise apartment, here one could also find the evidence of individuals who had found themselves, too.

As Raoul Vaneigem once wrote, ‘the eruption of lived pleasure is such that in losing myself I find myself; forgetting that I exist, I realise myself’, and the after-club experience of moving through the city under the influence of synthetic drugs such as MDMA and Ecstasy provided ‘the user’ with a perfect opportunity to engage with the urban environment in ways simply not possible in the routines of their (every)daily lives. In this vein, Sadie Plant was to expand upon Vaneigem’s claim, stating that;

The political desire to be in control of one’s own life and environment [...] is also a poetic and sensual desire to be really in the world, feeling its most intimate reality, which has been raised in long traditions of religious, artistic, and political expression. Generations of poets, prophets, and revolutionaries, not to mention lovers, drug-takers and all those who have somehow found the time to stand and stare, have craved the experience of complete integration.


Numerous studies of the dance culture have appeared over the past 20 years or so, and they can be clearly divided into the sensationalist (replete with images of trashed clubbers lost to the moment) and more thoroughgoing analyses that eradicate the images of those involved, privileging instead the environment that gives rise to and facilitates that moment (such as my own writings on this subject). For me, the former always present a lie; images of those ‘at dance’ that are a misrepresentation of what it was to be within the drug-fuelled moment of ecstatic dance as festival. That is why in all the books I have written on the subject, there is not one image of the very people I was writing about, for their experience seemed, fundamentally un-representable… Until now!


Enter, the artist Casper White who is currently showing a body of work at the Arusha Gallery in Edinbutrgh – It occurs to me that where my own ethnographic efforts to represent the image of clubbers had simply eluded me, White has found an apt methodology (some may call it a ‘technique’, although it is much more than that) to represent, visually, both the experience and the image of those ‘at dance’ in a way that remains wholly authentic and, one must add, I think, beautifully poignant, too.


Casper White's exhibition, reconfigured currently for the Arusha Gallery currently, has taken many forms. It first came to widespread public attention as part of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2018), and subsequently toured to Wolverhampton Art Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and now Arusha. White’s ‘interventions’ in the contemporary club scene have taken many forms in order that he could arrive at the paintings he has made and that have been touring thus far. With regard the backstory to the work, as he told Rhiannon Lowe of CCQ magazine:


“I went to Leipzig and Berlin with my girlfriend and some mates, started drawing in the bars and nightclubs. But it wasn’t enough; you’re only catching so much. I took photos in Berlin […] people dancing, watching bands. Not sure if anyone was aware. But I felt like a voyeur. I mean, these spaces, being in them, it’s pretty fucking intense, it can be; you go clubbing, it’s safe, but full-on, but it just didn’t come across that way. We tried the same in Palma as well, and in Magaluf.”


Clearly what White describes is the very problematic that I, as a writer, have encountered often (as outlined above), but for White, a maker of visual works and a painter of portraits here, he has pursued a muse that clearly drew him in and has had significant appeal. Indeed, as he aptly explained to Lowe:


“A writer doesn’t write a book about clubbing by just going to a club; you go home and reconsider it. At the same time, I’m reading books about clubbing, and they offer a certain feel; I think maybe film can convey clubbing more; but then, if you want that clubbing feeling for real, just go clubbing? These were quite intense environments, and they come across as... polite, in the photos I took. I decided all I can do is try and distil something, and then it becomes something else. I’m trying to look at clubbing through the history of portraiture.”


The morning after clubbing in Berlin, White took more photos, and made sketches, for example; “they weren’t great,” he was to tell Lowe, “but the sensation was there. […] I was doing little drawings, and I was excited, thinking this was it. But it wasn’t; it was vital though, part of it. There were moments I caught, luck really; some of them work.”


What he found, he has said, was that he didn’t need to be painting in a club to convey the things he wanted to. “I could walk away from the club, try and deconstruct what I was looking for, all the sensations I was trying to convey, portray, and reconstruct them in the studio. I would go to the corners of clubs and pick up old left behind things – bits of clothing, paper, confetti. I tried to keep everything from when I went to Berlin.” Again, we are back with Atherton here, and the detritus and litter of a lived experience.
Essentially, what White describes is his becoming not just a voyeur, but a documentary maker, being in it and dancing; conveying the kind of things he was thinking about, and then abstracting it. Effectively what he describes as the emergence of the body of work currently on display, was something more than ethnographic research and/or writing can convey, but authentic nonetheless, due to his own quasi-ethnographic immersion in it.

In the context of urbanism – and club culture is today nothing if not urban – Lefebvre believed that spontaneous festal pleasures were not only the necessity of daily life but ‘oppositional forces to bureaucratic planning’, through which the individual gains ‘insight into the rationalised and alienated patterns of their everyday lives’. Similarly, clubs such as those frequented by White in his research for the body of work discussed and seen here – staged within the contextual ‘undergroundness’ of club culture – offer participants an insight into the rationalised and alienated patterns of their everyday lives too. To put it another way, Lefebvre’s writing on rural festivals, in which he traced the development of the festival from the peasant celebrations of ancient Greece to their derivative, if not bastardised, forms in the twentieth century, reveals that:

Peasant celebrations tightened social links and at the same time gave rein to all the desires which had been pent up by collective discipline and the necessities of everyday work. In celebrating, each member of the community went beyond himself, so to speak, and in one fell swoop drew all that was energetic, pleasurable, and possible from nature, food, social life and his own body and mind.


It is easy, and one should say at times tempting, to dismiss the comparative analysis of club culture (urban) and festival (rural), but they do perform similar roles for participants and the comparison is apt. The symbolism(s) used within contemporary club culture are very often there as metaphors for other struggles, after all. That distinction being made, it is worth bearing in mind the persuasive comparison between archaic festivals and contemporary club culture’s own celebrations within the urban. As Lefebvre states of ancient rural festivals;

For these celebrations [peasant communities] make great ‘sacrifices’, in the practical sense of the word; in one day they devour all the provisions and stocks it has taken them months to accumulate. Generously, they welcome guests and strangers. It is the day of excess. Anything goes. This exuberance, this enormous orgy of eating and drinking – with no limits, no rules – is not without a deep sense of foreboding. Should a disaster happen, too harsh a winter or too dry a summer, a storm or an epidemic, then the community will regret this feast day when it devoured its own substance and denied its own conditions.


As Lefebvre questions however, if festival is a risk, a wager on the future, ‘what is there to be won, and what to lose?’ For rural peasants the festival was, he states, ‘a down-payment for the future’ realised according to magical rituals and Dionysian excess. For the dance culture, ensconced in the confines of a nightclub, it is more a down-payment on the present, a ‘constructed situation’ that for a short time alleviates the burden of everyday life in the city for a youth sub-culture whose claim on the present always seems to be in arrears.


As Plant claims, such an experience is:

Artaud’s theatre, Michaux’s ‘virtual space’, Burroughs’s cut-up, folded wordless world, his Arab music, and his cities too: Tangier, Interzone, ‘where the unknown past and the mergent future meet’ [...] This is a world of rhythm, repetition, an oceanic sound which, as Deleuze and Guattari wrote, ‘invades us, impels us, drags us, transpierces us. It takes leave of the earth, as much in order to drop us into a black hole as to open us to the cosmos. It makes us want to die.’


Though rendered in the chic textual form of hip academicism (something Sadie Plant would later shun) and anathema to the direct experience of a deeply felt nihilism of the dancefloor, Plant’s prose nonetheless conveys sentiments that club-goers themselves have voiced often:

The DJ didn’t give us any let up. He started bringing in a whole load of really minimal stuff – just the most basic of Trance mixed in with a few weird Techno tracks. It was from that point that I knew I was going to be killed by the music that night as he started building, building – we were going frenzied down there... (Anon. cited in Malbon 1998)


Like De Quincey, who wrote as on a palimpsest, overlaying one set of thoughts with another, quick to transform one ostensible theme into a second, so too is the club event orchestrated via the mixed skein of aural pleasures. In the words of Bakhtin, carnival ‘is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it’ and thus, I believe, in the translucent, ephemeral, so-hard-to-grasp images that have become the work White is now most identified with, for the first time we may have a painter who has found a means to authentically represent the club and after-club experience as lived moment.


Barthes’ analysis of the centre-city correlates well with this reading. White’s paintings are, I believe, authentic, erotic too, yet understated in precisely the manner that the memory of the lived experience I allude to is understated, and easily prone to loss or seizure due to the return to everyday life during the post-club come-down experience, as well. As Barthes says of the urban environment in which the eruptions of lived pleasure represented by White emerge:


I am using eroticism or sociality here without differentiation. The city, essentially and semantically, is the site of our encounter with the other, and it is for this reason that the centre is the gathering point of any city; the centre-city is instituted above all by the young, the adolescent. When the latter express their image of the city, they always tend to limit, to concentrate, to condense the centre; the centre-city is experienced as the exchange-site of social activities and I should almost say of erotic activities in the broad sense of the term. Still better, the centre-city is always experienced as the space in which certain forces act and are encountered, forces of rupture, ludic forces.



In overlooking the fact of dance as an act of resistance (which of course it is), traditional mainstream dance media has frequently presented ‘dance as image’, ‘dance as spectacle’ but not ‘dance as act’. Dance as resistance simply cannot fit snugly into what, in Howard Slater’s terms, would be, ‘readily marketable product categories’. To understand the full meaning of dance as resistance therefore, one actually has to be a participant, as White has been, and as his painting attest.


Like poetic language, the language of dance is neither the language of authority nor of social theory, and therein lies the final key to our understanding dance as a form of resistance that is evident in the work of Casper White. It evades the norms of the academy and the understanding of academicians, and particularly the authoritarianism of the establishment – in painting, society, and our everyday lives generally. The translucent, often near-incandescent, paintings that he has amassed here deliver a sense of those he paints as mere ghosts of both themselves and the experience that eludes the many and confuses still more. Dance theorists understandably have a more useful take on this, however.


For Doris Humphrey dance is ‘moving from the inside out’, and for Graham it is ‘making visible the interior landscape’. This, I think, White represents in spades. Painting on surfaces such as stainless steel, aluminium, and zinc (where just ‘a thimble full’ of paint/pigment, gestures towards the notion of the fleeting lived experience of dancing from an interior landscape, surely) he has understood the non-space of dance as experience and shows us that near-cerebral space in a way not seen before, or very rarely.


What is usually the ungraspability of such an experience, White has nailed. His images are illusive, illusory, slippery, and often completely intangible to the realities of mainstream culture (as the dance culture itself is and has been for several decades now) – frequently at risk of falling from our grasp entirely, in fact… unless we are in it, that is! It is for this reason that I feel compelled to claim that when it comes to the dance culture, in Casper White we encounter a painter who is truly of our times. As his current exhibition shows only too clearly, there comes a point where certain subjects require new modes of presentation, subtle yet authentic, vibrant, and yet grounded. That he has achieved just this in the installation of his current exhibition is commendable, for we are not so much stepping into an exhibition of portraits hung according to convention, as much as into the ‘after party’ of the artist’s own mind