“What Do We See?” Richard Walker and Our Place in the World
Richard Walker: House Paintings at Alexandre Gallery
November 29, 2012 to January 5, 2013
51 East 57th Street at Madison Avenue
New York City, 212-755-2828
Offered a residency in the historic Haining House near Edinburgh, Scottish painter Richard Walker responded with a series of modestly scaled canvases, setting up his easel each day in the common rooms of the house to depict the objects and furnishings left by its most recent owners. But as he progressed, Walker brought to his project interventions of his own, so as to extend its artistic ambitions well beyond its initial documentary premise.
Like a movie director, Walker deliberately kept the lighting subdued, so as to produce a visual drama of shapes and images emerging from darkness. There’s tension in the seepage of light around shutters and curtains; trees loom, framed by curtains just beyond the intimate clutter of books and lamps. The formal staircase provides a stage for domestic drama. Mirrors sometimes provide ways to enlarge and complicate these interior spaces, but Walker goes much further, to incorporate photography and digital projection, the ubiquitous new media that now extend the scope of our daily lives. They enlarge the compass of his documentation, by taking, for example, a family photograph in one room and projecting it in another, where it seems to be observed by a sculpted head (Bust, all 2011).
These virtual images bring ambiguous life to the memories that suffuse the house and construct new layers in its family history. They provide the viewer with something like trails of clues – a lamp in one painting reappears in another, offering some stable evidence as to the layout of the room. In one painting, Pamela, a woman’s figure – real or projected – appears by a distant pool table, evoking, as Edward Hopper’s often do, some unspoken drama.
Yet here there is no secret story to uncover, no Agatha Christie mystery of hidden crime. Rather, once our attention is engaged, Walker presents us with more philosophical conundrums about the role of painting in its contemporary media environment. Like painters from Chardin to Braque, Walker incorporates the tools of his trade in his paintings: in Brown Interior, for instance, he depicts a glowing laptop along with the projection it spawns, and the scrims and poles of his projection apparatus, as though to make honest acknowledgement of his process. He thus also acknowledges our complexly mediated relations to the past, to one another, and to ourselves in a world as interpreted by Marshall McLuhan.
Walker’s argument for painting’s relevance within this contemporary media environment is convincing on the purely visual level, where his painterly touch grounds his conceptual superstructure in materials. Worked wet into a dark ground, his strokes of light hover on the verge of legibility, with a poignancy that recalls the way good painting has traditionally endowed its subjects with life – a drama repeatedly enacted as his paint lends substance to transparent films of projected photos. The images themselves and the shadows they generate provide a formally satisfying interplay of dark and light, punctuated by the emergence of faces or other recognizable details amid more ambiguous patches of luminous pigment, often contrasted to more sharply defined silhouettes, as in Fireplace and Shadow.
Walker acknowledges the heritage of Cubism in these complexly articulated compositions, and his work goes beyond contemporary debates about painting and technology to open up, as Cubism did, a deeper questioning of our commonsense view of the perceived world. His paintings address themes of consciousness and presence discussed recently by the philosopher and perceptual psychologist Alva Noë, who asks, for example, how my awareness of a person in the room next door differs from my perception of the person in front of me, or from a memory of that person. If the eye, as is now generally acknowledged, does not present us with a high resolution photograph of the world before us, then our perception becomes a much more complicated interplay of active construction with the passive reception of light. We select and compose the objects of our attention. Walker’s intriguing blend of active construction with more passive, retinal responses to light obliges us as viewers to seek out the constant structures we take for granted, to ask again the question, “What do we see?” He thus engages his work not just with new visual technologies but also in an evolving understanding of our place in the world.