Frye Favorites: Rachel Townsend on To a Flame

Frye Favorites is a series in which members of the Frye’s staff and community share their perspectives on memorable exhibitions and works from the Museum’s collection. This post features Rachel Townsend, the Frye’s Manager of Digital Content.


It's funny to think one of my favorite works of art from the Frye’s collection is one I hadn’t seen in-person until it came on view last month in Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art. But the truth is I fell in love with To a Flame (2019) by Seattle artist Anthony White two years ago. I believe the first time I saw the painting was in 2019, when I was out on maternity leave, three weeks postpartum, and vaguely aware that the Seattle Art Fair was happening, where this work was on view. Ultimately, through the Frye’s acquisitions fund gift from SAF, our curator selected it for our collection. When the acquisition was announced on the museum’s Instagram, it was the first time I saw—and fell in love with—To a Flame.

Anthony White. To a Flame, 2019.

Anthony White. To a Flame, 2019. PLA (plastic) on panel. 60 x 48 in. Purchased with funds provided by Seattle Art Fair, 2019.006

I think it’s kind of perfect that I became enamored with the painting via a digital format, because I am so compelled by the way this physical piece of art represents something incredibly digital. You've got all of the various parts of an iPhone editing screen happening: the editing bits are captured across the bottom. The angle setting is included. And, there’s even the marching ants line that squiggles throughout the piece—a nod to Photoshop. As a photographer who used to work mostly with SLR and DSLR cameras, and then finally accepted that I was going to just shoot photographs with my phone once the quality of its camera became so good, I was instantly drawn to the photographic aspects and references embedded in this work.

On top of that, it's titled To a Flame, which is so beautifully represented in the screen glow that radiates around the figure. The way the light falls across the subject’s face, even though you can't really see those details, and the way this very William-Morris-esque wallpaper is illuminated, it all just really came together to me: a beautiful physical painting of a truly digital world. The juxtaposition of those two things made me madly in love with this piece. I like to think about how the first time I saw it, I was probably half asleep, very much like this figure, with the glow of a screen mirroring that sleep-deprived, new-parent kind of glaze I was experiencing in that moment.

When I saw To a Flame in the Museum for the first time, a couple of things really struck me. It is not monumental, but it is much bigger than I realized. I really like when you can stand in front of a work of art and really zero in, until you lose any sense of your peripheral vision. Also, I found it very affecting as the first work by Anthony White that I had seen in-person. I knew about his process of painting with PLA plastic, and so I expected the work to have a lot of texture, but it's just not something that can be captured well in flat images. The little plastic bands catch the light in ways that you can only experience in real-life, based on where you’re standing in relation to the painting and how you're looking at it. And so, getting to fully experience that affect, at the scale of this work, I just found it so... I don't know if there's a better word to describe this piece than sensuous. Obviously, I would never touch it. But you do want to touch it!

I have been following Anthony on Instagram, and seeing the other works that he's shared, this work feels unique in that he typically uses incredibly bright colors in his paintings. In contrast, the palette in To a Flame has an understated nature that seems unusual—a choice that I find especially interesting. I suppose it really speaks to the title in some ways. Throughout art history, artists have used single points of light to illuminate and create shadow. I love experiencing that reference here, one the artist has transformed into a contemporary experience through the subject matter.

The piece is one of very few male nudes in the Frye's collection, a fact that makes the work even more intriguing to me. Given all of the female nudes that pervade the Frye’s collection (many of which were on view recently in the exhibition Unsettling Femininity: Selections from the Frye Art Museum Collection) it's refreshing!


Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art is on view at the Frye through January 23, 2022.



Rachel Townsend
Manager of Digital Content

(as told to Erin Langner)