Claudia Rankine’s The White Card poses the question “Can American society progress if whiteness stays invisible?” While the play analyzes and criticizes the way racism is pervasive in everyday culture, it also takes the time to look at visual art and how we interpret art as a medium of understanding. An influential, art-collecting couple invite Charlotte, an up- and-coming African-American artist, to dinner in the hopes of purchasing her work for their esteemed collection. The evening quickly derails and becomes about so much more than specifically Charlotte’s art. The White Card provokes us to think beyond what is directly in front of us. It challenges us to think critically about bodies in space and how we occupy an atmosphere. What does your body imply as you walk through the world? What political burdens and privileges do we carry on our backs? And how does that influence our spatial occupancy?
The White Card poster features artwork by Martha Tuttle, specifically selected by playwright Claudia Rankine, entitled “Nose-to-nose 2.” Constructed from a delicate balance of wool, silk, pigments, and paint, here Tuttle is challenging how art and bodies occupy space in a similar vein as The White Card. “A question that has come up for me time and time again is what it means to be a body that is matter in a world that is also matter,” Tuttle articulates. “How is it possible to feel both together with the world and sometimes so separate from it?
“I am inspired by thinking about touch, about how a human body encounters a material body. Although I consider my work to be within a painting dialogue, I use mostly textile techniques such as spinning, weaving and dyeing. I see these practices as allowing material variation, as well as touch, my own, a place’s, a process’s, to be recorded into material form.” These dialogues continue to raise the question on how our experiences, creativity, and insights are dictated by the bodies we inhabit and what influences is imparted on us through these lenses of perception.
Claudia Rankine’s interest in Tuttle’s work resonates with the ideas of proximity. “Tuttle’s interest in intimacy and touch goes to the heart of the questions that drive The White Card. When I first saw her [Tuttle’s] piece in Tilton Gallery, I was drawn in by the meeting of different materials in the making of the whole,” explains Rankine. “The wool suggested a warmth and care-taking up against the fragility of the glass held in place by wood. The encounter of these materials mimicked for me encounters between people where their differences remained despite the warmth and laughter that might begin our coming together.”
In discussing her work in conversation with The White Card, Tuttle allowed her relationship toward her own work to evolve. “Because I think so much about closeness, falling in love with my work is part of my conceptual practice. It is necessarily heartbreaking to let my pieces go. At the same time, I know my work is successful when my pieces are able to speak, be separate from me. Having this push and pull is intrinsic to my practice,” Tuttle explains. “I feel more than usual that this piece [“Nose-to-nose 2”] is no longer my own. That it has been given an opportunity to enter into a set of questions that I may not have been consciously thinking about when I was making it. I think this is why I feel so good about my piece being used in this context; I feel like the painting has grown up and gotten bigger than me.“
Art is an intimate experience, from creation to observation, and allowing the work to expand past the artist’s hands is an incredibly vulnerable experience. “I obviously didn’t make the work specifically for the play,” Tuttle confesses, “but when I watched the run-through the other day, I think the thing that came up to my mind the most was just how in making any work — artwork– it’s creating space for conversations to come in and for people to come in. That can be one of the most beautiful and generative parts of it, but when that space is misused or misinterpreted or when someone is coming into it for questionable motives, things get very complicated space very quickly.”
“Nose-to-nose 2” took on a new life beyond Tuttle’s original questions of matter and boundaries of material, and became part of a larger conversational fabric, intertwined deeply The White Card. This artistic dialogue between play and artwork is a reminder of how art is able to mold based on ideologies and certain societal contexts. Visual art, in particular, is often a vehicle for social and political change, and Rankine’s dedication to visual art as medium of change is reflected in The White Card whole heartedly, but perhaps in a new form.
For Tuttle, this process of observing her art take on a new life has prompted new musings and criticism of process, such as “I’ve always thought that it isn’t important that it’s my body that’s making this work, but that a body is making this work. Mine is the one I have access to. But recently I find myself questioning this self-distancing more and more. I’m interested in figuring out what does my body – mine, not a- lends to this practice that is particular? How does my physical form, my identity, how I move through the word affect how, when, where I touch, extend, generate? Maybe it turns out that embracing my own specificity is about much more that self-assertion.” Similarly, The White Card provokes us to ask questions about our own identities in the context of art, and also broadly in the worlds we occupy as physical beings.
With artists like Claudia Rankine and Martha Tuttle creating spaces for discussion with their work, we are able to use art as an instrument to propel these ideas of body, identity, and space forward. As Rankine explains, “I write to provoke dialogue and to transform how we think about what is means to live and breathe in the world.” The White Card is no exception, and neither is Martha Tuttle.
The White Card is an American Repertory Theater production presented by ArtsEmerson. The production will continue its run through APR 1 at the Emerson Paramount Center in the Robert J. Orchard Stage. For more information, please visit our website.
All images of artwork are provided by the artist and Tilton Gallery.