Based outside of Millbrook, Erik Daniel White paints figures, symbols, objects, and scenes modeled with never-dry clay. The playful, innocent nature of his work disarms viewers while White presents cultural critiques and meditations on America's attitudes toward the environment, food consumption, peace, liberty, tax policies, religion, and an obsession with competition.
Sunset One features three dinosaurs and a smoldering volcano—the image is an unsubtle nod to the creatures' inevitable destruction. The painting was made in concert with Sunset Two, which depicts an automobile, plane, and a factory with spewing smoke. "They formally relate together as a way for me to show the dark irony that the leftover carbon from one extinction is being released into the Earth's atmosphere and being used to create cities and industries that are ultimately causing a new mass extinction," White says.
White began as an environmental studies major at Portland State University but switched his studies to art while retaining a focus on the philosophical and political aspects of environmental change. "What I learned during those years still has a great influence over me and occasionally comes out in what I paint," he says.
He first started making paintings from clay models in 2012, initially working from found photographs. Wanting to gain more control over his entire process and make something completely his own, he began using plasticine, the same clay that Claymation artists use, and moved away from found imagery.
"I use plasticine because it never dries, it's easy to form, and it can be recycled. I liked the contrast of making a very accurate rendering of clay that is less refined and raw. It wasn't until graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that the clay began to look like identifiable objects, scenes, and symbols," White says.
At the heart of his work is a playful seriousness that's reminiscent of Play-Doh and Claymation movies. "You don't need to know any deeper meaning to enjoy the painting," White says. "At the same time, many of the paintings have a deeper, sometimes sadder or more critical intent. The dents and the imperfect surfaces take on a new layer of meaning. My aim is to comment on these things without being rude, didactic, or polarizing."
He begins with many loose drawings followed by cardboard models, the best of which he makes into clay models. His paintings are built up with many layers of gesso, which he spends many hours sanding until smooth.
White's work will be part of the group show "Frozen Warnings: A Salon for the Chilly Months" through March 5 at Bill Arning Exhibitions in Kinderhook. Other artists in the show include Susan Wides, Dan Devine, Shirley Irons, and Carter Hodgkin. White and Arning met in Lincoln, Nebraska, after grad school and have stayed in touch since. During the pandemic, both relocated to the Hudson Valley. Arning asked White to be a part of "Frozen Warnings." "I am very grateful to be included in the show amongst extremely talented artists who live in the Hudson Valley. Their intelligence and skill is humbling. I love it here," he says.