New York

Kelley Walker

For artists from Francisco de Goya to Cady Noland, images of disaster and systemic social brutality have served as conduits for writing history and for soothsaying—at once reminders of what has passed and forecasts of the future. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a media-savvy über-company like Benetton also attempted, beginning with its notorious ’80s advertisements, to harness and cash in on this power of the abject and the horrible (not to mention the taboo).

The company describes its controversial campaigns as a “means of communication” and as “expressions of our time.” In his first solo show, Georgia-born artist Kelley Walker makes this strategy his own—if in torqued, deeply inverted form. Reappropriating and substantially altering an image of a plane crash on Maui that was used by Benetton in 1995 on the cover of Colors, Walker brings the company’s annexed image into the fold of art (leaving the green “United Colors” box insignia intact).

In Walker’s variation on the Maui plane-crash photo, tangled arabesques of opalescent white, squeaky-clean green, and peppermint pink obscure twisted steel or highlight the face of a survivor still waiting to be extracted from the wreckage. The title of the image is simply schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with whitener, 2003. Benetton and Walker seem to agree on one thing: Group identity (and the ideals of community and solidarity) is now defined less by shared political interests than by what we purchase or by what calamities we endure together.

In two other works, well-known photographs of ’60s race riots are the ground for toothpaste similarly deployed as a kind of twenty-first-century digital ectoplasm that links, however ambiguously and tenuously, the historical event to the contemporary viewer. We’re so literate in corporate semiotics that we can correctly identify a brand of toothpaste by its color combinations while seeing the terrified protester it partially obscures as something generic, iconic, one of many. Walker’s political poker face owes a lot to Pop, and to Warhol in particular. In fact, the young artist paid homage by scanning and smearing a shot identical but for cropping to the one that appears in Warhol’s 1963 Red Race Riot.

The exhibition also included five large sculptures made up of discs propped from behind, each incorporating three bent arrows describing an infinite triangle—a newly iconic symbol for “recyclable.” This emblem, taken up recently as hip-hop signage, coolly emblematizes much of what Walker is on about: circulation, signification, and sampling. For if a didactic politics is (thankfully) hard to read in Walker’s imagery, it’s more visible in his mode of distribution. Using a scanner as hybrid camera/palette, Walker sells his work as image files he strongly sug- gests buyers tamper with. (Recently he was featured in a group show where the gallerist purchased one of his CDs and then, with the artist’s blessing, sold her own bootleg copies for profit.) And at this exhibition, ten dollars got you an unlimited-edition poster of scanned bricks and poured-concrete masonry usurped from
a book on Louis Kahn.

The piece in the exhibition that engaged pathos most directly was a large, awkward collage of scanned and cutout owls ranging from Disney-cartoonish to National Geographic–accurate, nestling into mismatched branches, twigs, and leaves or holding up a large flag declaring SOLIDARITY. The word stares back at us as blankly and interrogatively as any of Walker’s images—making a promise while undermining the possibility of its fulfillment.

Johanna Burton