Painted in 1983, White Lightning has all the appearance of a billboard-sized collage. Rosenquist's experience in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a billboard painter clearly reverberates through both the scale and the sensory overload of the image. The strange, scattered shards have enough continuity to convey clearly the impression of two female faces, teeth bared, lips parted, as though in a moment of sensual rapture. Rosenquist has condensed and distilled the content of advertising: he has boiled away all the veneer, any direct association with products being sold, and has instead revealed the bare bones, the mechanics of desire, that underlie commercial images in our world. He has taken this visual language and subverted it to his own purposes, turning the entire media spotlight in a new direction and through a new Rosenquist filter. In so doing, he illustrates the role of stimulation, of sensuality, of sexuality in the mechanics of consumerism itself. In this, White Lightning manages to combine Rosenquist's idiosyncratic perspective, his billboard visual language and scale, and also the political content that has often informed his pictures, either peripherally or directly.
Collage has long fascinated Rosenquist. It has often allowed him to blend incongruous source images together, seeking out strange new juxtapositions that reflect our immersion in a world of ever-shifting visual stimuli. Spaghetti, cars, women, lipstick, bacon... All these have blended together on his vast canvases to strange new effect. The image in White Lightning is taken from a preparatory maquette, a collage that Rosenquist made in 1983, taking slices of images of two women and feathering them together. This tessellated combination of jutting fragments of glossy magazine photographs is the result of a strange violence, of scissors taking the pictures to pieces and rearranging them in some new Frankenstein combination. Rosenquist has slain two images in order to graft them together, to spawn another, a super-image that rises like a strange and hallucinatory Phoenix from the ashes of the originals.
In this way, Rosenquist creates a distorted super-image in which the visual information of each picture has been disrupted and yet that still conveys not only the appearance of the two separate heads, but also a new gestalt image that concentrates the sensuality of the two original faces. Shown together in these angular shards, the two women combine to become far more than the mere sum of their parts. In taking away, Rosenquist has managed to create something far more intense, something that spills from the canvas and into our world, overwhelming us through its larger-than-life appearance and existence. 'Collage is still a very contemporary medium, whether it is done with little bits of paper or in the cinema,' Rosenquist has commented. 'The essence of collage is to take very disparate imagery and put it together and the result becomes an idea, not so much a picture. It's like listening to the radio and getting your own idea from all these images that are often antidotes - acid - to each other. They make sparks or they don't. The best thing is that they make sparks' (Rosenquist, quoted in J. Blaut, 'James Rosenquist: Collage and the Painting of Modern Life,' pp. 16-43, W. Hopps & S. Bancroft (ed.), James Rosenquist: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York 2003, p. 17).
To Rosenquist, it is not only the intense visual stimulation of modern life, but also the wider speed and hectic nature of our existence in the bustling metropolises of the capitalist world that is conveyed in collage. It manages to convey the way in which we experience life as a whole, not only in terms of the sights that we see. 'In collage there is a glint... or reflection of modern life,' he explained. 'For example, if you take a walk through midtown Manhattan and you see the back of a girl's legs and then you see out of the corner of your eye a taxi comes close to hitting you. So - the legs, the car - you see parts of things and you rationalize and identify danger by bits and pieces. It's very quick. It's about contemporary life' (Rosenquist, quoted in ibid., p. 17). This became all the more noticeable to the artist during the early 1980s, when he was dividing his time between New York and Florida. He had become increasingly preoccupied with life in the Florida wetlands, a factor that would become apparent in paintings similar to White Lightning that combine images of flora and fauna as well as females. White Lightning thrives on a more direct visual content. Instead of mixing images from here and there, it deliberately focuses on one type of picture, more than doubling the visual impact. Thus the content is pared back in one sense, but is all the more forceful because of it.