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New Age of Destruction
New Age of Destruction

Welcome to WalkerWorld!

One thought fills immensity
William Blake

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes
Walt Whitman

Richard Walker's A Million Universes sets out a contemporary psychogeography. Corinna Lotz in discussion with the artist on the eve of his Waterloo show.

Like Blake and Whitman, Richard Walker celebrates a democratic vision of the world. In the 21st century, defying the existence of a New Age of Destruction, the title of a recent and terrifying image in his forthcoming show, he shares their embrace of the human in all its contradictions, muck and all.

WalkerWorld is the multifarious, complex and constantly changing, image-dominated, humanly-created world of modernity. It is brought to vivid life in visions of London, New York, California, Tobago, Sardinia, Verona, San Gimignano, Mexico City. They come and go in his work, brought together with his love of poetry and music.

This England, That England is the name of the first of three spaces at Gabriel Fine Art. Here re-mixes of the Alice in Wonderland story appear alongside personalities including Margaret Thatcher, Francis Bacon, William Burroughs and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi has a special significance for the artist. In 2005, a bus blew up outside his studio in Tavistock Square, only yards away from a statue of the Indian freedom fighter.

Taking the title from Patti Smith’s album Peace and Noise, Walker reflected on the shock of those events and the eerie silence that followed as forensic experts combed through debris. A large black, white and silver canvas, Panic on the Streets of London (the old Smith’s song), shows London’s Gherkin and brightly-lit office blocks glowing through spatters and criss-crossed slashings of black and grey paint. The words “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” are a reminder of how quickly a scene can switch from one mood to another.

A second space, All Gone to Look for America, is dominated by the quite spectacular American Heartache and a grand 30-piece group of small canvases which document the build-up to Obama’s first election. Heartache, as so often in Walker’s work, plays on two contrasting forms. Rocky crags soar up from an empty centre. It’s almost like an abstract expressionist painting at first sight. But each part is intensely figurative in its own way: the grid of lit windows on a skyscraper on the left, the texture of the Rocky Mountains on the right.

Richard Walker American Heartache
American Heartache

Torn pieces of corrugated card and grids, threaded lines like a spider’s web criss-cross, trace paths through the dark night. Cut-out scraps of printed words – “soppy little things” as Walker calls them – mark intersections with phrases like “gone for good”, “taste of believing”, “the listening wind”, “knew you could”, “dark highway” – half-remembered country and western music that float through your mind. Why American Heartache? “It’s the wasteland of America,” Walker says, “the dissatisfaction of the post-election Obama years”.

Bolder and brighter paintings, loosely titled Blocks of Thought, are simultaneously cheery and scary.  Big angular shapes, cuboids of colour hover like UFOs over Manhattan and California suburbs.  Made from enlarged postcards of cityscapes and photographic collages, they transform familiar architecture with sci-fi and fantasy shapes. For instance, My Kinda Town, an enlarged old postcard of Chicago’s post office, depicts a Mussolinesque white 1930s pile, partly blotted out by massive pink, red and brown stripesAre these symbols of ignorance, oppression or of knowledge? Or the amazing power of a Cubo-Futurist artist?

Richard Walker My kinda town
My Kinda Town

We are shown Manhattan as we don’t know it in a magnificent triptych, Bridge and Tunnel. It’s a wonderfully dark and damp view of Brooklyn Bridge viewed from a watery gutter. Baffling spaces and caverns, a 21st century reincarnation of Piranesi’s imaginary Carceri. And indeed, there is another connection:  Walker recently contributed to an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s museum. Soane was of course an avid collector of Piranesi prints.

Richard Walker Bridge and Tunnel
Bridge and Tunnel

The line Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself encapsulates a new series, which Walker calls his “sleepwalking pictures”. They occupy the third space in the gallery.

“I wanted to free up my ideas and visual language and create an accessible imagery for myself,” Walker says. “So I worked as though I was doing it in my sleep.” Are they, you wonder, like a musician’s five finger exercises, or Surrealist automatic writing? Walker nods emphatically, yes. “They don’t mean anything, nor do the titles. If you want them to have a meaning they can refer to lots of things. It’s like when you are doing something, you are thinking about other things at the same time. Now that I look at them, there are many ideas and emotions packed into them.”

Richard Walker Sleepwalking
Some of the Sleepwalking Pictures

Arrows often appear, a shape that he appreciates for its positive feel and direction. They are a kind of guide to find your way out of the labyrinth, for navigating your way between the conscious and the subconscious, the infinite spaces of the mind. It all brings you back to William Blake’s words “one thought fills immensity”, taken from the poet-artist’s Proverbs of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790, while he lived in Hercules Road, a four-minute walk from the gallery.

There is a distinct delight in how fragments such as a line of poetry or a haunting phrase, the name of a song, a collaged or cut-out image or photograph can transform into symbiotic relationships, juxtaposed by the seemingly magic touch of the artist. We all have our own associations, but they are orchestrated through Walker’s own particular sensibility.

Richard Walker The Human Condition
The Human Condition

These multimedia canvases foreground the complex relationship between image and myth – how forms are historical and immediate at the same time. Image and Myth is also the title of Walker’s remarkable 2004 visual autobiography. This is how we take in the world around us: through the many layers that words and images provide, imbued as everything is with its own history, whether or not we are aware of it.

Walker conducts us through his own psychogeography – anchored in our troubled global world of now. His four most recent pieces mark a shift of gear, reflecting recent events in the Middle East, particularly the rise of ISIS. They are mostly monochrome. The Human Condition shows blindfolded heads reminiscent of hostages; No World Order consists of four shapeless blobs with disintegrating forms within forms, like sterile eggs or tumours. New Age of Destruction, channelling Bob Dylan, features a wedge-shaped newspaper collage of share prices, towering menacingly over a limbless creature.

The opening lines of Blake’s London (emblazoned on nearby walls) spring to mind:

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe

But while WalkerWorld has many shades of dark, its energy and sense of structure overcomes the sense of menace and gloom. Walker shares Blake’s rejection of a one-dimensional world and his search for an infinite, contradictory reality, encompassing myth, image, sound and the written word.  He embraces the energy of life itself – our being, others’ being, history, design, the built environment  – our world as it is, a part of that same, acutely sensuous world.

15 October 2015

A Million Universes, paintings by Richard Walker, is at Gabriel Fine Art Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, SE1 7LG. Opens 23 October and runs to 31 October 2015.

Footnote: In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself by John Marsh: (Monthly Review Press) is a contemporary look at the relevance of Whitman’s ideas.

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