Interview: Dave White on his ‘Natural Selection’ exhibition

Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

Dave White is a familiar name to anyone involved in the British art industry. He’s also a name of legend in the sneaker industry. On the eve of his latest exhibition titled Natural Selection, we sat down with Dave for a chat about Jordans, art and his passion for animals.

Dave White is one of the most refreshingly honest people we have the pleasure of interviewing. We’ve interviewed him before when he launched his Nike Air Stab Neon back in 2010 and I’m sure that this will not be the last time. There’s something very open about a very stylish, tattooed guy with a name in the industry such as Dave’s getting very passionate about endangered animals. You’ll be hard pushed not to notice that throughout the interview.

Natural Selection marks the largest exhibition of Dave White works to date and is a definite marker that this talented British artist is growing. As the conversation unfolded it became clear that not only is Dave’s name and reputation growing, but his style and approach to painting as well. It was truly fascinating to hear about how he works and why his work has moved in this direction.

Obviously, we couldn’t help but start by discussing one of his largest achievements since we last saw him; his own Air Jordan 1. Released in February 2012, the Air Jordan 1 Dave White caused a frenzy in the sneaker community as for the first time, someone had managed to remove the Swoosh off a Jordan 1 and make it to production. This wasn’t the only detail that sent the Jordan fans crazy, and as Dave mentions on the next page … “a lot of purists hated it, a lot of people loved it”.

Since we last saw you in December 2012, you’ve gone on to officially release a Jordan. As a giant Jordan fan, how did that feel?

It’s a dream come true kinda thing. It’s coming up to 10 years since I actually made the first sneaker painting and although a lot of people know them, a lot of people don’t know that I don’t make them anymore. I’m a massive collector as people know and I’m a massive Jordan fan and even though we did the charity one, to get your official one where I was allowed to explore a Jordan 1 and especially to be allowed to do the things we did like taking the swoosh off, using specific materials, it’s kind of weird really. I dunno, it’s just a very amazing thing to be involved in. It’s an amazing honour to be associated with a brand such as that and for them to want to collaborate with you is just a massive honour. I never lose my love and wonder and excitement for any kind of new kick. Incredibly humbling to be honest.

What was the inspiration behind the design of that Jordan? It seemed to fit in with the art that you were doing around that time.

I really wanted to kind of tear stuff up. The actual core ethos behind it was to create something that didn’t veer too much from classic colourways. I’m not too fond of Jordan’s that go completely left field. I think Red, Black and White – you associate it with the Bulls and the glory days. My main attempt with the shoe was to create something that looked like it was dynamic and that it was moving already, so the kind of energy from my signature paint splat with the stars, the little touches of 3M and the little slap dashes of cement print here and there. It was more of a homage really, with my little kind of twist. To take the Swoosh off was obviously one of the main features – a lot of purists hated that, a lot of people loved it. Sneaker heads, I’m one myself and you’re never gonna please everyone [laughs]. I just wanted to do something that had never been done before and that’s kind of the ethos of what it was.

Are there any more collaborative sneakers in the pipeline?

There are. I can’t really say too much. The finishing touches are happening and fingers crossed, ‘cos like all of these projects, until it’s actually out there there’s always things where it might not come out. You know what I mean? There is something in the pipeline that could happen shortly, which could be very exciting, but we’ll see.

Your last London show was back in April last year, so what have you been up to since then?

I’ve been up to a number of things really. There’s been a few kind of collaborative things. I’ve been exhibiting abroad and things like that, but this show has been the culmination of a long period of working. I like to do that, I like to get into something and then just disappear and completely immerse myself in it. I don’t really do things that are kind of slap dash or fad-like. A lot of the subjects I do, everything I touch is always very deep, very personal. Not fashionable I would say. That’s something I’m very aware of – I don’t really like to make things that are en vogue or cash-ins. That’s just not how I work as a painter. I’ve been doing my thing for 20 years and it’s not flash-in-the-pan, it just does what it does really.

Is Natural Selection your largest exhibition to date?

Kind of it is. As a collection it is and with the range of what’s in there, for sure, yeah. I just want people to come in and be surprised. The most important thing about what this show is I kind of touched on with the Americana stuff, there was a few pieces I was dealing with kind of Indian spirit guide animals like a golden eagle, a mountain lion, things like that and it’s kind of, no pun intended, an organic process really. Basically, the more I got into the beauty and how magnificent these things are I immersed myself completely. With the Americana stuff I went over to Monument Valley and completely immersed myself in the whole culture, and that’s how I work.

With this, the more research I was doing, the statistics of some of these things, it’s absolutely horrific. We’re all Yeezy II’s and iPad 3’s and looking forward to iPhone 5’s, where really when you’ve got a leopard where there’s 15 – 20 of them left in the world, the scarcity and the absolute end result of what this could be in our lifetime, it’s just frightening. Sneaker collectors, cars, it doesn’t make any odds. Some of the things that are in this room, there are literally a handful of them left on this planet. Life moves so quickly and we’re all so obsessed with information and things to be so fast and animals are almost something that are just completely like “There they are. They’re all getting on with it and that’s fine” where really it’s absolutely not fine. That’s what this show’s about.

Your work seems to have moved into animals via Americana. What’s the selection process behind what animals you decide to work with?

I’ll have no bones about it, this will be a subject that I’ll be deep into for a long time. Going on a lot of websites and doing a lot of research like I said. There’s obviously the specific things and it’s almost a kind of “Ah well, we know their rare but so what?”. You think of giant pandas, you think of orang-utans and your process is like “but they’re kinda getting looked after”. You see the breeding programs and you know that there’s a foundation in Borneo, so it’s ok. Well really, it’s so far not. Some of these things are still getting poached, some of them are still getting used for medicines, some of them are getting moved out of their environment based on our need for steel or iron or deforestation and stuff like that. It’s crazy. Things that you wouldn’t actually necessarily think are rare and becoming endangered are starting to enter on the list.

So my whole kind of thing of what I chose was obviously things that are very endangered, but also with a few curve balls like there’s a butterfly in here and you’re like “Well what’s that there for?” and it’s the same thing; they’re becoming increasingly rare based on pesticides and all that kind of stuff. Things like the African hunting dogs, they’re on the endangered list and things that you think are just running around happy as Larry; it isn’t like that at all. So yeah, it’s one of the main things I wanted to get across with this. There’s a number of pieces that actually show the dynamism and the fluidity and the movement of how they work and how they move, which I find very beautiful and is something I’ve been obsessed with since being a kid.

Is that sense of motion new for this exhibition?

It’s new for me. I’ve got a very specific way of working, there’s always a very accurate underdrawing , although it’s spontaneous with everything that goes on top, but obviously with the nature of what I’m working on, the fact that these things aren’t static and to take something out of the context of what it is and the way I put paint down, it’s very animated. It kind of just fits perfectly. It gives them that level of making them look alive in a way. It makes them look energised, it makes them look spontaneous and moving and that’s what this whole things about really.

You’re more known for your oil works, but this exhibition features quite a few watercolours also. Is that a first as well?

I had an amazing time at art college. I studied fine art painting for over 10 years and I was very interested in every craft. I mean I was one of the last years where you literally got your course paid for, you got a grant to be there, which is unheard of for people now. It was very traditional with all of the crafts of preparing your canvas and stretching your canvas and applying paint. There was classes specifically for that and I completely and utterly immersed myself from day one in that. I used my years from 7 in the morning ’til I got booted out to explore everything. Watercolour is something that I used to use many many years ago and it’s kind of just naturally come back into the work. It’s a beautifully out of fashion medium and it’s a beautifully, incredibly difficult medium to handle. People will see these things and think “Oh, it’s kind of easy. There’s the signature splats and drips”. I would hope that people would look at this and see an application that’s learned, that gives a magnificence and a kind of stature to these things.

Did you pick watercolours because it reflected the fragility of some of the animals you were painting?

Absolutely. That’s what it is. When you’re dealing with animals, with no disrespect to anybody, anybody on this planet that uses animals as a subject, I’m not the first and I won’t be the billionth, I’m just me and I just do what I do. But if you’re picking up on things like the fragility of something or the actual delicacy of something like some of the hummingbirds, which have got 24 carrot gold leaf on the wings, which is a visual tool to make it look highlighted when the light hits it but it’s also something that again symbolises their preciousness. So, if you’re picking up on the spontaneity and the fragility then my work is done. Awesome. Thanks! Well spotted.

Any last thoughts?

I’d just like to say thanks to The Daily Street and I hope as many people come and see it and almost retake the fact that you can never take animals for granted. I think where things like zoos and stuff like that were seen as places of just “Oh we can go and see them”, they’re actually used as kind of conservation things and they’re an incredible program. So what I’d say is, we need to get involved, we need to do more and be more concerned with these incredible things and make more of an effort and not be so selfish as human beings and really do our best.

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Huge thanks to Dave White, Digby and Annabel at Flint and Anna at The Hospital Club. Make sure you head to The Hospital Club to go and see the exhibition for yourself – it’s quite something.

Natural Selection by Dave White
The Hospital Club
24 Endell Street
London WC2H 9HQ

Friday 22nd June – Saturday 7th July
Monday – Friday: 11am – 7pm
Saturday: 11am – 6pm
Sunday: Closed

Full info