PRINT April 2005


LOOKING AHEAD last summer to an issue of this magazine that would consider the theme of art and politics on the eve of the American presidential election, I asked Kelley Walker, a young New York–based artist, to contribute to a portfolio of original artwork reflecting on the cultural moment. Walker excitedly accepted this invitation over the phone and said he would have something ready immediately. A few days passed. Then a week. Then two. Barbara Kruger visited the offices and executed her contribution in-house; James Rosenquist began and finished an entirely new painting, then shipped it out of town to be photographed before sending a transparency overnight from Florida. Walker? No word. Increasingly mindful of a fast-approaching deadline, I called and left a message on the artist’s cell phone. A few hours later an e-mail arrived: “Hello Tim . . . just checking to see if you got the pc. I sent. Afraid you might not recognize it as a pc.” While the suggestion that Walker had already completed his project was welcome, the implications were not: Lost somewhere amid hundreds (if not thousands) of press releases on a table near my desk was, hitherto unbeknownst to me, the artist’s work. Sifting more carefully through this anonymous correspondence, I finally came upon a relatively unremarkable folded-up poster from Continuous Project (a loose collaborative of New York artists and writers, including Wade Guyton, Seth Price, and Bettina Funcke). It could have been an announcement for almost any exhibition. One side was boldly marked KELLEY WALKER; the other featured what seemed to be a handwritten note to my attention: “Getting started on the right foot!” James Rosenquist makes a new painting and a relative unknown gives me this? It seemed like a lot of nerve.

The small poster features an image that is, at first, a familiar enough example of its type: the collector posed at home with his family and a number of artworks. His wife stands beside him; the children are casually seated in the foreground (some are, in fact, neighbors visiting for a summertime pool party); on the walls are a few works, including a playful, untitled canvas from 2001 by Laura Owens, likely recognizable to anyone who follows contemporary art. However, if the poster’s image slips quickly into the genre of portraiture, it slips just as quickly out. For set starkly into this scene is a large, white recycling symbol whose crudely cutout form seems utterly incongruous with its context: Is it a work of art in the collection? Indeed, given that it looks almost digitally inserted into the image, one wonders if the thing is even in the room. Yet those already acquainted with Walker’s work will recognize this ordinarily authorless symbol (found on plastics and paper products everywhere) as a recurring, even signature, motif—no matter how paradoxical—within the artist’s often-hermetic formal repertoire. Of course, that doesn’t make the sculpture’s role in this particular photograph any clearer. By its very nature, the symbol implies circulation, directing the viewer someplace beyond the edge of the photograph or to some moment before or after the image’s making, in turn asking one to be conscious of networks of exchange, of distribution—but to what end? True, I was intrigued. But the “political” dimension of Walker’s project was hardly less cryptic, encoded, or inscrutable to me than it had been when lying unnoticed in my office for weeks, lost amid stacks of mail.

I went back to the artist for an explanation. He replied via e-mail:

It is a little weird, but I think it works. One thing achieved is a lack of style, which plays off the art in the photo. . . . Also I think it will work well juxtaposed with ads and images throughout the mag. Maybe at the end of the portfolio next to an ad would illustrate this. . . . Structurally, the photo works like Weiner’s photo of the rug with a square removed. But the mailing of the note is pretty much On Kawara. . . . Finally, when I designed my show [at Paula Cooper Gallery] I was thinking of how the sculpture and wall works would operate outside of the gallery, in collectors’ homes and magazines.

I especially appreciated Walker’s subsequent explanation of the handwritten “personal” note on the poster’s verso, which I had not thought to question:

Wade and I were putting the bulletin together and photographing it to see how it would look reproduced and it seemed the front (part with text on it) needed another source of info., something that was added, coming from a different time and space. . . . Wade had a Star Trek book on his shelf called Enterprise, so I flipped it open and read the first line my eyes focused on, which didn’t make sense, so I flipped more pages and read a passage which intuitively felt right. It was one where a crewmember said to the captain, “Getting started on the right foot.” I then asked Wade to write it (my handwriting is ugly) and we scanned it, then inserted it onto the back with a blue dropped shadow to “slight” the jest.

As it turns out, these two elements, recycling symbol and scanned signature—itself a negation of the most common, intimate inscription of authenticity—were the twin poles of Walker’s first solo show, mounted in 2003 at Paula Cooper in New York. Indeed, to gain better insight into the “political” nature of Walker’s Artforum contribution, in all its density and dispersion, may require some circling back—following the logic of his chosen sign—to this earlier installation.

The show featured five recycling symbols, including three arranged along a single axis down the middle of the main gallery, all large and radically flat, identical except for differences in their rotation and “packaging”: the various scanned and printed images—ranging from rough-hewn cardboard to slick, cereal-box graphics—that Walker attached flush to the objects’ surfaces, thereby obscuring their laser-cut-steel supports. Given their appliqué imagery and emphatic two-dimensionality, the objects were more pictorial than sculptural, creating an illusory effect made all the more disorienting on those occasions when the symbols’ arrows were empty cutouts through which the space of the gallery was visible. This effect is, of course, only heightened when these symbols are reproduced photographically, since their flatness can seem totally unreal, suggesting that these sculptures are clearly designed to anticipate and problematize their own reproduction and circulation in other media. (Recall that Walker was photographing his project for Artforum to see how it would reproduce.) But even when encountered physically, their effect strongly resembles that of the symbol in Walker’s poster: something ambiguously cut out from the “rug”—to borrow the artist’s metaphor—of a visual and experiential field, uncannily both present and absent, positive and negative, in but not of the space.

In this regard, Walker’s signs could be said to figure in three dimensions the kind of blank areas strategically used by modernist painters to open up a free space that allows viewers to consider an artwork (and their experience of it) at a thoughtful remove. As Wassily Kandinsky writes: “I always find it advantageous in each work to leave an empty space; it has to do with not imposing. Don’t you think that in this there rests an eternal law—but it’s a law for tomorrow.” Or, as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh explains further, responding to this specific quotation: “That ‘empty space’ . . . was conceived of as yet another strategy of negation, negating aesthetic imposition, functioning as a spatial suture that allowed the viewer to situate himself or herself in a relationship of mutual dependence with the ‘open’ artistic construct. The empty space functioned equally as a space of hermetic resistance, rejecting the assignment of ideological meaning and the false comforts of convenient readings alike.” Certainly, Walker’s flat insignia set everything around them in relief, their cutouts creating a subtle sense of estrangement that not only heightens our experience of a given space but also animates his work as a whole. In the same way that his “styleless” recycling sign did not immediately announce itself as an artwork on the Continuous Project poster, in the gallery it functions as a signature device that nevertheless manages to deflect our attention to the world beyond, an almost paradoxically self-effacing logo that suggests no unique creative identity behind it and perhaps even implies the implausibility of such a thing.

Walker’s signs, then, provide a formal manifestation of recycling as philosophy and phenomenology. Recycling, after all, reframes material, pointing to another “time and space,” as Walker might put it (a “law for tomorrow,” as Kandinsky did). It entails making objects from materials whose original uses are lost to the eye, so there is something always drained or “emptied” from the past, something always present and absent at once. But the recycling sign also points toward the slippery networks of distribution and circulation to which Walker’s work in general is both addressed and aspires, particularly when it comes to the ubiquity of visual imagery in our culture. Also on view in his Paula Cooper show were posters affixed to the walls—it’s noteworthy that the exhibition operated as an installation, in essence framing the entire space—which featured images of building materials scanned from a book on architect Louis I. Kahn. These were, in fact, unlimited-edition posters available for a mere ten dollars to collectors, who are free to reproduce and distribute the image. (On numerous occasions, the artist has sold his work on CD-ROM, with the stipulation that purchasers may manipulate and alter the imagery as they wish using Photoshop, so that no work is ever really “finished.”) In this regard, it is tempting to consider Walker in terms of a “postproduction” model, one in which preexisting material is reused and remixed into free-floating samples whose circulation mirrors the logic of such contemporary technologies as MP3. And, in fact, some of Walker’s other efforts provide overt visual metaphors for such a reading. One untitled piece from 2003 is a chunky gold-chain necklace and recycling medallion, pointedly recalling yesterday’s rap mixes and style. Made of gold leaf over cardboard, the piece embodies the same material tensions as the larger recycling signs, while Walker’s frequent return to that thinnest of precious metals (and to the trope of the collector’s item as throwaway) summons Yves Klein’s most skillful manipulations of aesthetic value and desire.

While current technology provides a context and even a structure for Walker’s practice (where perpetual reproduction occurs within an ever-expanding network), his approach nevertheless demands comparison with art-historical models of appropriation—and, in turn, some consideration of the recent evolution of the very commercial sphere from which many of his images are drawn. Among the first photographs Walker usurped from the mass media were pictures in Time-Life photojournalism compendiums, which he used for his nine disasters (Florida City; Maui; Moran; San Fernando Valley; Anchorage; Kobe; Elba; Los Angeles; TWA Flight 800), 2002. This variable poster comprises nine images, each depicting the aftermath of a tragic incident, from earthquake damage to airplane wreckage. The work’s title, subject matter, and even gridded organization obviously invoke Warhol, a figure whose precedent can be felt throughout Walker’s oeuvre, from the younger artist’s implementation of serial strategies to his deployment of Rorschach blots. But Walker blankets his imagery with a Larry Poons–like allover field of brightly colored dots that veils and even camouflages his sources. With this work, too, individual purchasers of the piece on CD-ROM are encouraged to change the constellation as they wish; and, in the meantime, the dots again provide “spatial sutures,” visual blocks that render the images ambiguous almost to the point of illegibility.

For that first solo exhibition, Walker returned to one image from nine disasters, a 1988 picture of passengers evacuating the wreck of Aloha Flight 243 shortly after the miraculous conclusion of a journey during which the aircraft’s fuselage had torn open at an altitude of some twenty-four thousand feet. The photographic source here, however, is no longer a Time-Life collection but a Benetton advertisement that had incorporated the same stunning image. During the ’80s, the apparel giant famously moved away from advertising campaigns that featured the tangible merchandise they were engineered to sell in favor of photographs of events and individuals in the “real world,” taking up a provocative range of imagery, from saccharine scenes of interracial harmony to inmates on death row. As one corporate strategy statement from the time reads: “Benetton believes that it is important for companies to take a stance in the real world instead of using their advertising budget to perpetuate the myth that they can make consumers happy through the mere purchase of their product.” To every “real world” image, however, the company added one simple design element, a green rectangle with the corporate logo reversed out in white. This “spatial suture,” as it were, renders ambiguous both the photograph and the charged event depicted within it, the corporation in effect creating that contemplative distance between the viewer and the image—in order to brand it.

While this Benetton campaign is now often remembered for using scandalous imagery to sell sweaters—or, more accurately, for the scandal that attended the advertisements’ deliberate ambiguity and rejection of “ideological meaning”—it must also be seen within the context of a general economic evolution in which branding and subjectivity have grown ever more intimately involved. A more urbane formulation of such a corporate strategy was articulated in a seemingly paradoxical statement by Rem Koolhaas regarding his projects for Prada, made around the time when his store in Lower Manhattan was completed in late 2001: “Our ambition is to capture attention and then, once we have it, to hand it back to the consumer.” Thus the very creation of a space for the consumer’s thoughtfulness—a framing of personal experience—itself becomes the commodity. As Virginia Postrel, a New York Times business columnist and author of the wondrously titled The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (HarperCollins, 2003), wrote in the mid-’90s: “We are, in fact, living more and more in an intangible economy, in which the greatest sources of wealth are not physical. We aren’t yet used to an economy in which beauty, amusement, attention, learning, pleasure, even spiritual fulfillment are as real and economically valuable as steel or semiconductors.”

With these market developments in mind, it should become immediately apparent that in Walker’s work, the terms of ’80s-style appropriation are reversed. Whereas, say, Richard Prince removes the brand name from Marlboro ads to reveal the mechanisms of their seductive fiction, Walker leaves the corporate logo intact within an image steeped in real life. More striking, however, is the realization that the artist now operates in the distance opened up by this commercial “suture,” and he adds another “empty space,” a double negative far more disquieting in the ambiguous visual experience it induces: He defaces the image with expressionistic lines, streaks, and spurts that are paradoxically frozen, precise, spectral, mechanized in their appearance. Walker achieves this effect by making these marks on the bed of a digital scanner before pasting the resultant composition onto the advertisement’s visual field, thereby replacing the gesture with its mere image, uncanny in its replication. Within that already empty space produced by the ad, the value of the gesture is evacuated; it is, in effect, the gesture rendered in a totally controlled space. And in this branded space, freedom can only ever be a performance, if it can exist at all. Hence Walker’s scanned gestures openly, even flagrantly perform their own inauthenticity, suggesting a kind of agency that is both expressive and controlled, immediate yet removed from the “creative” act. This sense of evacuation is only compounded by Walker’s materials, whose minty effulgence immediately reveals them to be dental products. (The clinical title, in fact, indicates precisely what the stuff is: schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with whitener, 2003.) These materials again implicate the body—but only to clean it, to render it hygienic. If the flat scanner and its drainage of the authorial impulse behind a given gesture recall the horizontality and free-form spray of Warhol’s “piss” paintings, here the scatological mess of the master’s works has been made peppermint fresh.

Numerous other projects within Walker’s oeuvre pivot on commerce’s deep reach into subjectivity and its reframing of experience. An ongoing series of Rorschach sculptures made of mirrored Plexiglas, for example, offers a direct analogy with this corporate scenario. Viewers of traditional Rorschach inkblots are “reflected” in their own psychological projections, but here each mirrored blot literally reflects the viewer in real time, replacing the subjective response of the infamous psychological test with a physical, experiential one. Audiences inevitably search for their own figures within mottled, cutout areas that actually cast their images back at them, much as Koolhaas might wish to hand back the careful “attention” of Prada’s consumers. Walker’s colorful, smoothly finished objects point to the merchandising of subjectivity, and perhaps not coincidentally, these highly seductive, unique sculptures have become his most expensive works—showroom pieces that actually show the room in which they hang. (Walker also very recently collaborated with Guyton on a series of screen prints incorporating copy from the “Dear Ketel One Drinker” advertising campaign—for which the relatively new vodka brand presented a long history for itself, using gothic script to connote age and positing in the world a fraternity of individuals who identify with the label—such that the viewing subject of their work is at the same time overtly addressed as the consuming subject.)

While we may literally circulate within the mirrored field of Walker’s “Rorschachs,” it is the mechanized gesture that circulates most provocatively throughout his work, implying branding’s ubiquitous, multivalent mediation of our experience. In schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with tartar control, 2003, explosive source imagery from civil-rights protests of the 1960s bears the same “empty” abstract strokes of toothpaste as the Benetton ad in Aquafresh plus Crest with whitener. Given that contemporary audiences are likely able to identify (and identify with) brand-name oral hygiene products more easily than they can recall the particular protagonists and context of the image, Walker marks the inevitable distance between the depicted scene and us. Indeed, however familiar the image may seem in the collective unconscious, one wonders what specific details about the conflict actually remain available to audiences today. Who is the man? What ultimately happened to these people? We risk viewing the image, again culled from a Time-Life book, as a bit of branded “history”—passively, as watchers—and this conceptual distance is both signaled and even enacted by Walker’s evacuated gesture, which renders the overall “schema” deeply resistant to interpretation in its apparent vandalism. Paradoxically, the distance introduced by Walker’s “empty” gesture serves to bring the scene of the image closer—if only by making more acute, even chilling, our awareness of what specificity, detail, and identification is potentially lost in the image’s circulation and eventual aestheticization. Walker elsewhere points to the aestheticizing of politics in a scanned collage of a banner and birds titled Solidarity, 2003, whose cartoonish quality would seem to undermine any nostalgia for protests past.

The suggestion that politics can be reduced to a formal device is all the more significant in Aquafresh plus Crest with tartar control because the work, in fact, triangulates not with imagery already appropriated by a corporation but rather by the Factory. To those with even the most basic familiarity with postwar American art, the piece is likely to evoke Warhol’s Race Riot works of 1963–64, in which the same photographic image appears. Certainly, audiences are likely to recognize Warhol’s name before that of the photographer who captured the original image of the riots: Charles Moore, a young white Southerner based at the time in Birmingham, Alabama, who was with the photo service Black Star. (As it happens, Walker himself hails from the South, from rural Tennessee.) The artist manipulates such layered references even more effectively in one of his strongest works to date, Black Star Press; Star Press Star, Black Star, Black Press, 2004, among the first in a series of ink-jet prints on canvas that he began last year using a single, similarly iconic picture from the civil-rights movement: the charged image of a police officer struggling with an African-American demonstrator who is being attacked by a German shepherd. Here again the image and its presentation would clearly seem to be Warhol’s: Walker mimics the Pop master’s technique for “emptying” the charged riot image, repeating it in three panels of a triptych. Atop each of these images, Walker has made apparently violent gestures and splatters in brown and white—yet these marks are not what they seem. Closer observation reveals formal repetitions, since all these splatters are in fact made using overlaid screen prints. Gesture is again mechanized, controlled—the catch being that the material forced through the screen is not ink but rather melted white, milk, and dark chocolate, which solidified after its application (and, as with the toothpaste, there are also obvious scatological and sexual associations). But the beguiling sense of things not being what they seem grows even uncannier when we realize that Warhol never actually used this exact image. In fact, it was not even made by Moore but was taken during the same riots by Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson, ending up on the front page of the New York Times the next day.

Such refractions, repetitions, and evacuations bring me, full circle, to Walker’s project for Artforum and, in particular, to that project’s twin poles of recycling symbol and inauthentic signature. In fact, we are now better poised to appreciate the work’s complicated passage from an announcement poster to a magazine page, which is marked with a message not from Walker to me but from one Star Trek character to another, written not in Walker’s hand but someone else’s, the text inscribed not in ink from a pen but rather by a printer fed information from a scanner. Recently Walker referred in an interview to “the potential for historical repetition, for historical stuttering, allowing us to seize on its structural logic and recycle it today.” In fact, this strategy pervades Walker’s practice as a whole, which is repetitive, cyclical, both dense and diffuse, its terms turning back while moving ahead. Ironically, it is these gaps and doublings that create the possibility of legibility, providing the space for communication within circulation while also placing any meaningful exchange at the greatest risk of invisibility, or even of disappearance—just as I discovered that summer afternoon while scouring my office for Walker’s hidden project.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.