New York

Kelley Walker

For his third solo show at Paula Cooper, Kelley Walker presented a number of large-scale “paintings” across which march silk-screened images of scanned bricks and cinder blocks. Quasi-photographic in nature and blushed with unnatural hues, the resulting “stacks” flicker between illusionism and flatness, rendering each composition at once another depiction of a wall (or barricade) and another variation on the theme of minimal, nonreferential grids. On close inspection, however, the “mortar” ostensibly holding steady each of these hybrid feats adds—quite literally—another unexpected layer. Hand-cut, glued-on strips of newspaper and magazine pages snake between the bricks, each canvas’s mock cement drawn from a single recent issue of a news or entertainment print source, including Domus and Slurp magazines and the New York Times. In some cases, whole pages occupy sections of a canvas, assembling themselves in neat rows and stacks mimicking the artist’s bricks.

In a conversation published in the catalogue for his recent exhibition at Le Magasin, in Grenoble, Walker remarked to his interlocutor, the critic-curator Bob Nickas, that in such works “the collaged newspaper and magazine pages also help to inspire in myself—and, I imagine, in other viewers—an impulse to lash out or cut the canvas, to graffiti it.” Walker’s invocation of vandalism with regard to these particular works seems, initially anyway, incongruous; the bricks are, on the face of it, innocuous, utterly well-behaved when compared to his earlier, often racially charged, images, such as, say, his appropriations of covers of King (“The Illest Men’s Magazine Ever!”) featuring half-dressed black women, whom he has smeared suggestively with toothpaste.

Still, when I visited the show, I saw in action just the kind of “impulse” Walker had envisioned. A woman, standing as close as she could get to one work, had clearly become irritated by her inability to figure out just how it was made, and so began—tentatively at first—to feel its surface. Unsatisfied after tracing the outline of a brick, she quickly moved to pushing the canvas full force with a stiff finger, as if to bore a hole through it. Though she was stopped before succeeding, her action, I realized, spoke to more than just a lack of art-viewing etiquette. Indeed, the gallery, filled with these tightly hung images of blockage, became a subtly anxious space, the open architecture visually denied or, at the very least, strangely constricted. This feeling—of the walls pressing in—was made explicit in an untitled work that stood in the middle of the gallery. A tall, awkward, L-shaped partition mimicked the gallery’s architecture while somehow also contradicting it (the pretense of 360-degree views upended); a smaller wall installed closely along one side was papered with the New York Times (the October 27, 2008, issue, to be precise): reading material ostensibly available to anyone willing to shimmy through the slim slit.

In the smaller front gallery, Walker had constructed what looked to be a different, if related, kind of piece—a gaggle of aluminum stands in various hues and with reflective surfaces creating a kind of maze for viewers, who walked through only to see images of themselves mingling with supersize mug shots of Whitney Houston, circa 1985. A disco ball threw rotating drops of monochromatic color (these reflected from a video projection), and each time the cycle reached hot pink, applause from an erstwhile Houston concert filled the space. And although the gesture obviously risked kitsch, something about Walker’s treatment of the singer (he had, after all, built her a monument) suggested something more. The space, packed with competing signifiers of “good fun,” was instead weirdly sad, an incongruously stark testament to pleasures now past.

Johanna Burton