by Mikko Lautamo
If Joseph Beuys were reincarnated as the third member of Flight of the Conchords you’d have Richard T. Walker. Walker is an awkward shaman. His work, which flows directly out of notions of the sublime, is as honest and tender as a lover pouring out his heart on a borrowed guitar — but with humor and a fumbling self-awareness that softens what would otherwise be an angst-filled search for existential meaning. In typical Walker fashion, the works on view at FraenkelLAB (the Upper Market St. extension of its longstanding Geary St. location) employ electric guitars, sound equipment, video, neon, rocks and sticks, lightboxes, prints and paper cutouts. Like Serra’s lead, Beuys’ honey, or Paul McCarthy’s shit, the music and the open-air settings of Walker’s videos stand as metonyms in a dialogue that extends well beyond the reach of spoken language.
Walker was born in Britain, but is now based in the Bay Area. The seed imagery for his work comes from the epic, desolate western landscape of White Sands, New Mexico where he journeys to record video, perform and gather materials. In an is that isn’t always, a 9-minute video, we see Walker lying on his back, seemingly floored by the power of the landscape before him. As in previous work, Walker wears his trademark red shirt and speaks into a tape recorder, but the mood is now more fraught; rather than a quiet argument with a miffed lover, Walker is explaining himself to a palpable, but indifferent, higher power embodied in the sand and sky. The light rays and white-on-white imagery invoke stereotypical images of a Christian God, but Walker diffuses this pomp with his opening line: “All I can do is sit back and witness the unfolding of something meaningful…maybe.” That “maybe” is critical to how Walker presents himself throughout as an imperfect but earnest conduit for the sublime. Walker has witnessed something out in the desert, and he’s trying hard to communicate it.
After this opening scene, the video cuts to a ladder in front of a distant mountain peak. Walker ascends it with a large print of a woodcut (of a different mountain) attached to his back like a turtle shell. When he reaches the top he begins to play his guitar while the printed mountain aligns with and obscures the real one in the background. Walker strums a short melody to the mountain, only to be immediately interrupted with a droning, organ-like sound as the video cuts to a shot of red dirt with a dandelion growing in it. Several more cuts occur depicting “harmonious” passages of sky and “dissonant” passages showing earth, setting up an antagonism between the lofty and spiritual and the real and material, while the mountain peak
stands in between, an indeterminate entity. In the final scene, Walker goes silent, frustrated by his inability to communicate to the vastness in front of him. Seemingly at random, a black bug runs out from where Walker is sitting, and he chases it playfully. The illusive bug speaks to the difficulty of an artist capturing his or her subject, but it also suggests a problem of scale: Walker is no more comprehensible to that bug than the vastness of the world is to a person living in it.
The show is tinged with such quasi–religious superpositions. The collage series, an elusive equivalence #1-3, shows hands holding small stones before images of a mountaintop. Positioned to assume the same shape as the mountain, the stones are intended to expose the fallibility of perception as well as the role the artist plays as intermediary. The distorted hand positions recall gestures featured in religious iconography. This as determined by these #1 and 2 are collages that resemble medieval icons inside heavy wood frames, which Walker has craftily split. The bottom contains a photo of a large stone. The top holds a woodblock print of a mountain taken from a book of landscape engravings Walker had as a child. Whether it’s a parable about youth tempered by iconoclasm, or a deep yearning rekindled by an old book, isn’t clear. Walker plays the role of a spiritual guide, not a dogmatist.
What’s fun about the show is how rock ‘n’ roll it gets. Contingency of an Afterthought is an electric guitar on a tripod with a lightbox print suspended above. At the beginning of each day, someone must strum the guitar so it plays a single note that is sustained by the reverb of the amp and the acoustics of the room. The position of the lightbox print, which shows a stone set against a mountain, suggests that the guitar is playing for the mountain. In Defiance of Being Here, a keyboard holding down another sustained note, is surrounded by lit neon tubing that stretches around the instrument, “crawls” up the wall and pierces a basketball-sized rock: a concise statement about the power of music to cut through obstruction. The central piece in the room, the consequences of everything else, is a lightbox print of another mountain, rendered in an unnatural shade of cerulean blue. It reads as a reflecting pond, a place where you might pray or meditate – an impression reinforced by a low-buzzing Om. The sound comes from a microphone set above the lightbox that feeds the enclosure’s natural harmonics into a nearby amp, echoing an idea first hit upon by Paul Kos, who, in 1970, positioned microphones before blocks of melting ice.
Although the blue mountain is the newest work on view, it feels artificial compared to the rawness and realness of the guitars and keyboards. For me, the buzz of the lightbox is a sour note that, rather than reflecting some sound or song of the mountain itself, is simply an irritant. In his video, Walker tacitly recognizes how the simulation — the woodcut mountain on his back — cannot adequately replace a real mountain. By comparison, the collage work on the walls and the lightboxes in the installations, while capably composed, are never as successful as the real sticks, rocks, instruments or the video. Like Beuys, who used sleds and reproduced survival gear to construct his hero myth, Walker has established a material lexicon for revealing an
ephemeral meaning that cannot otherwise be easily conveyed. While the cutout mountain peaks are central to his message, it is precisely their distant muteness and artificiality — not their song –that drives home Walker’s essential point.
Many other artists purport to take you on a spiritual journey. Walker succeeds in doing so by exposing his own vulnerability before nature, which from the 19th century to the present, has been an essential ingredient in portraying the sublime, which loosely speaking refers to the experience of standing before nature and having the shit scared out of you. His instrumentation, careful symbolism and precariously balanced installations exude the tension of a yet-to-be-grasped revelation. Walker’s dogged pursuit of the ineffable places him in the position of someday becoming one of the important artists of his generation.
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Richard T. Walker: “Contingency of an Afterthought” @ FraenkelLAB through July 16, 2016.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.