Art review: Richard T. Walker at Christopher Grimes Gallery
In Caspar David Friedrich's iconic painting, "Monk by the Sea" (1808-10), a solitary figure stands with his back to us, confronting a seascape stark and sublime. Skip ahead two centuries to Richard T. Walker's video, "successive inconceivable events" (2005) for a contemporary restaging of that profound negotiation between self and nature.
This one features the artist as a secular searcher perched on a hilltop, facing the valley below, literally addressing the chasm. He speaks – shouts, actually – as if his voice had to carry to the vista's furthest reaches, and chooses his words haltingly, like a confused suitor, unsure where he stands.
"I don't know," he bellows. "I think you're really beautiful and quite amazing, and yet there's a lack of some sort of connection." After all, he says, he's been walking around all day and his presence has not even been acknowledged. "I thought there'd be a bit more warmth, I'd feel more comfortable, but I don't." Instead, he admits, he's disappointed. The object of his affection has made him feel isolated, alienated.
Walker's tender and provocative six-minute video, at Christopher Grimes, is part romantic meditation, part confessional love letter. It's also a coy coda to a particular tradition in British art centering on the experience of the solitary walker in the wilderness –kin to the work of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, for instance, both of which also incorporate language. Walker, born and schooled in Britain, now lives in San Francisco.
The video begins with several establishing shots of gorgeous scenery, broad views of hills and fields in muted fall colors. Walker enters the scene holding a boombox, which he places on a tree stump near a patch of dead limbs. He sits in silence with his back to us while the machine plays a mellow, instrumental introduction to his address. When the music stops, he begins to speak, funneling his feelings into a distinctly 21st century complaint – earnest but tinged with entitlement, naive yet demanding.
"I feel you're being pretty harsh," he accuses, raising his voice to compensate for nature being a tad deaf to his needs. His expectations deflated, he wonders aloud why his affection has not been returned. He seems oblivious to how his plea must sound, coming from right next to a murdered tree and its scattered bones, and concludes that there must be some sort of misunderstanding.
There is a misunderstanding, of course. Several of them, which make this modest little work especially poignant and memorable beyond its short duration. Walker's anthropomorphizing of nature, his assignation of human qualities of will, character and emotion to the land is amusing, charming even. It's also utterly telling. In an appealing and nonthreatening way, Walker lays bare (and implicitly challenges) the presumption that the natural world revolves around us. He gently mocks our inability to step outside of the self-appointed center by showing himself attempting more meaningful communion but failing, due to fundamental flaws in the terms of the search.
This is Walker's first show in L.A., and it makes a fine introduction to a body of work of genuine relevance. In his videos and performances since "successive inconceivable events," he has continued to prize the authentic lyric voice, and to bring our present culture's epic estrangement from nature down to an intimate level. His tone is accessible, slightly absurd, but ultimately reverential.
At the end of the video at Grimes, Walker announces plaintively, "It's getting pretty cold. I'm going to go." Then he sits a little while longer, as if hoping to be begged to stay.
– Leah Ollman
Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Feb. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cgrimes.com
Image: Film still from successive inconceivable events, 2005, courtesy of Christopher Grimes Gallery.