New YorkRobert Walker: Zhoosh
David Richard Gallery presents Robert Walker’s newest series of paintings in Zhoosh, his first solo exhibition in New York and debut with the gallery.
The presentation includes 14 works comprised of thirteen small-to-medium easel-sized, mixed media paintings on panel and one painting on paper. The imagery is dense and colorful, not quite vignettes nor a montage with a common thread or theme that delivers a particular story. Instead, they are episodes or burst of the artists thoughts, art historical references and moments of inspiration that create a cohesive visual experience. The images range from symbols and iconography that reference diverse cultures, religions and belief systems to formal concerns in art coming out of Modernism and Post-War abstraction.
The artist’s exhibition title, Zhoosh, actually sums up the paintings and presentation very succinctly. According to the definition from the Oxford dictionary, zhoosh is “to make something more exciting, lively or attractive”. Looking at the images of the paintings, it is clear that the artist managed to a go beyond Zhoosh!
There are many images in the paintings that emanate thoughts of enlightenment, meditation, consciousness, awareness of self as well as one’s surroundings and place in the cosmos. The artist is particularly fond of Om (Aum in Sanskrit), the symbol and mantra in Hinduism that is spoken during meditation practice. The “third eye” is ever present in the paintings, which references the gateway to enlightenment and higher consciousness. The “empty chair” from various cultures (and design periods) actually is an element that the artist has admired and used frequently throughout his career. Symbolically, the chair references the Buddha, not literally, but as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings. Like most religious icons and dietary rules, they are intended to always remind the student of the religious teachings and lessons learned.
Many other interesting images and symbols in these paintings include seated Buddhas, lotus flowers, Buddha heads, temples and pagodas all of which reference Zen Buddhism, Indian religions, meditation and enlightenment. Other references are to astrology, nature, animals, organic forms, the sea with fish and seaweed. There are also fingerprints that nod toward identity or surveillance especially with the ever-present eyes watching. However, a majority of the passages are an assortment of geometric, curvilinear, biomorphic and optical abstractions intermixed with the grounds.
According to the artist, the art historical references do not have a particular conceptual underpinning in these paintings. However, they reference significant and important artists who are in the canon of art history and one could say, either they as people or their artworks are considered to be iconic. Bridget Riley’s Op art with the curvaceous lines and illusory effects are a favorite of Walker’s and make frequent appearances in and influence on his work. He also makes interesting Pop Art and Minimalist references by incorporating well known motifs from artworks by Roy Lichtenstein and Sol LeWitt as well as imagery from Pablo Picasso. Clearly, these luminary artists make an imprint one way or another on other contemporary artists and either influence younger artist’s aesthetic or have an impact on their thinking, and as such, perhaps they too have “an empty” chair at the easel.
Given the breadth of imagery and content in these paintings, the artist masterfully pulls everything together visually, as he has throughout his long career, by using color, lyrical and rhythmic lines and forms that create literal and aesthetic bridges from one element to the other. Another technique is the extensive use of framing devices. He uses patterning with distinctly different palettes, forms and shapes to generate the frames. The result creates pictures within pictures to organize and effectively layer the density and diversity of the imagery.
The vibe is immediately trippy, psychedelic and playful. But the deeper dive into the images as the vibrancy and lushness of colors and surfaces pulls your eyes from the center to one corner, than mid-center, then off to another corner. Each image is familiar in some way, conjuring up memories, a giggle or two and a very pleasant journey around the globe and through art history. Then, it hits you: What does all of this mean? That is when the realization sinks in that it is a puzzle, but there is no resolution, no clear-cut picture to make the pieces fit. Instead, it is followed by the awareness that we are bombarded by all of these symbols and icons throughout our lives. Some we are taught and fully understand, others we see in the news, in magazines and advertisements, as well as social media today. Often, we sort of know what each one references and other times they just give us a general cultural feeling. So, then, we either decide that is all okay and we just enjoy the images, references and compositions because it makes us feel good, which is okay. Or, if a viewer is interested in enlightenment and practices meditation and/or has knowledge of contemporary art history, then they might begin to start asking questions about belief systems and challenging what they were taught, or what they thought they knew. Even if a viewer is not so inclined, the subliminal messaging with the abundance of the symbol for the ‘question mark’ in many of the paintings might make a viewer begin to think they should maybe question something. Regardless, the artist got to them. Either with pure aesthetic genius or by getting into their head.
Robert Walker’s Statement Regarding His New Paintings in Zhoosh:
Art is how creative people make sense of the world. What better time to make art than in the midst of a world pandemic? Life and death. Art reminds us that civilization rises in spite of the absurdities of human experience. Surely the role of the artist is to show the world how to see and even to offer access to a symbolic and spiritually motivated visual world of beauty.
My practice relies on the distillation of various elements found within the iconographic systems of primarily Eastern belief systems. Raised in a Christian fundamentalist family, I began a search for less rigid systems of belief. Deconstructing the diverse vocabularies found within this source has helped me attain a new and vibrant visual aesthetic.
Since what we term “reality” is never fixed, the relationship between the viewer and the object is always shifting; I strive to express that immaterial vitality. I do not want to simply create diverting optical illusions, but rather to challenge the viewer to question what they know and what they think that they know. I hope that in the sharing of these paintings I can encourage the viewer’s participation in the search for a universal truth.
ROBERT WALKER BIO
Robert Walker is a los Angeles based artist and art historian. He was born in Los Angeles and received his MFA from the University of California at Irvine. He taught art history at the college level for 25 years and has lectured at universities in both the US, Japan and Thailand and numerous museums in Southern California.
Walker first exhibited his work in 1975 at the La Jolla Museum of Art. In his 45-year practice he has fabricated paintings and sculpture that reveal his deep interest in Eastern religions and practices. Coming from a strict fundamentalist background he very early sought alternatives to this restrictive view. Walker has had a long-standing foundation in process-oriented art. When process work functions at a high level it moves toward its own autonomy calling attention to the meditative labor involved in its construction
His sculptures and drawings have been included in numbers exhibitions throughout the United States, Japan, Thailand, and Cambodia. His work is included in a number of museums and prominent public and private collections and he has received a number of awards and fellowships.
He has long been a social activist in the artistic community of Los Angeles, founding programs both for homeless artists and for artists with AIDS and HIV. He has served on the board of a number of LA non-profit organizations and currently serves as the president of LAArtcore and is a commissioner for the city of Redlands Cultural Arts Commission.
Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr.
Palm Springs Museum
Eastern Center of Art & Culture, Burapha Univ., Chonburi, Thailand
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University
Gordon Hampton Collection, Cal State Long Beach Museum of Art
SWU Collection, Srinakharinwirot University, Sukhumvit, Thailand
All Artwork Copyright © Robert Walker, Courtesy David Richard Gallery. All Installation Images Copyright © Yao Zu Lu