On The Work of Richard T Walker
Feature article, Sculptorvox Magazine Vol. 2, 2018
Several years ago now, I went to see an exhibition by the artist Richard T Walker. On returning home, catalogue in hand, I was surprised when a letter fell out on to the floor, addressed; ‘To whom it may concern’. Typed on standard A4 paper, neatly folded, the artist (I assumed) felt compelled to inform me of something, ‘of the upmost importance’. It turns out the anonymous author had been out walking in the wilderness, consumed by its wonders, when, taking a rest he had allowed his head to fall towards his feet:
With my body in this position I became increasingly conscious of the weight of my head. I suddenly found that I was thinking about the object from which my sight comes, as opposed to the usual thoughts about that which my sight sees. For a moment this allowed me the space to start to understand that everything I see is essentially viewed on my terms, and that it all exists in relation to myself.
The letter went on to describe this existential realization- his inability to escape himself, with a sense of reasoned yet deep disappointment, the landscape before him being now only a reflection of what he already knew, his own expectations and desires. What if he could see things on the terms of the objects he was looking at? ‘I noticed that everything suddenly began to look at me. I was now the focus. I was central to their composition. When I realised what was occurring I stood up quickly to normalise the situation. But normalise it did not’. It is this predicament that I, the reader, was strongly advised to avoid, the letter signing off with; ‘I wish you well, and that your relationship with nature remains as it is.’
Richard T Walker is a British artist who left his native landscape for California over a decade ago. His work is rooted in the Romanticism of his Northern European and American predecessors, a sensibility that he grapples with, critiques, parodies and embodies. Central to his practice is the artists’ dialogue with vast, empty landscapes and distant mountain peaks. Broadly composed of video, photography, performance and installation, his own experience in and of the landscape is interrogated; pulled apart and reconstituted. This questioning of perception is accompanied by a sense of self- depreciating humour – the cautionary letter that fell onto my living room floor is an absurd parody of the heroic romantic quest. It is written from the view of solitary figure who venturing outside of comfortable society into the wilds of nature, has further dared to think beyond the boundaries of his self. Through interrogating his relationship with the landscape, Walker sets up a multi layered dialogue which transcends comical critique; he is describing fundamentally human frustrations and desires. The distant mountain allures us only to find when reaching the summit that the peaks are on another horizon. Their seduction is dependent on distance and otherness, which speaks of the desires and frustrations of our own intimate relationships. By serenading these distant peaks with his guitar, in a seeming attempt to woo them and bring them closer, Walker not only parallels very human dynamics, but he reveals something of our relationship to language and its failure to express or articulate felt experience.
There is an ongoing dialogue between the places we are taken to through film and what is happening in the space of the gallery. The installation works attempt to break down perceptual and ultimately untranslatable experience, pulling apart images, sounds and ideas. Each element, both in content and construct, is a different point of interrogation; the real rock generates a chord on the keyboard, it’s image is mirrored in a light box, inverted, a reflection of itself… In conversation he described it as;
Just breaking a moment apart… taking an experience and essentially deconstructing it, pulling it apart to expose the variant elements and then seeing how you can rearrange them, to re-interpret or describe the experience in a different sense, that still makes sense. Maybe even making a bit more sense.
Breaking apart an image, fracturing a film with shot changes and sudden sound, makes apparent the constructs through which we are experiencing the work, it forces a critical distance in what would otherwise be an immersive experience.
I could present some beautiful landscapes and some great music and then you would be in it, you would be there … the film would end and you would walk away. That in itself could be valuable. But for me there is something about allowing someone to get into that space, that headspace, whatever it is, and then rupturing it – so the viewer is aware of the mechanics at play in terms of how we are seduced or immersed into something. It picks it apart and allows people to see… to think about the soundtrack, to think about the landscape, to think about how those constituent parts relate to us and how we want things to be…
Just as we are potentially lost in the beauty of the fading light over the desert, he suddenly cuts to a close up of a shrub accompanied by an abrasive drone. This switch makes us acutely aware that we are watching a framed view of the landscape, yet we could equally laugh out loud at its’ absurdity. The self-aware humour is another form of interrogation; it undermines the romantic gravity, but as Walker says, ‘undermining can bring things together rather than the opposite, so it creates space, but it also creates closeness and intimacy’.
Similarly images within images create connections and distances, an oscillation between points, here, there, real and also past- in copies of historical prints. The drone like sound elements of many of Walkers installations cohere the experience in the gallery and amplify the cinematic sublimity of the landscapes we are taken to. There is therefore a continuous oscillation between being in and out of the work, a sense of flux with which the artist grapples in his attempts to commune with nature.
This position of oscillation between parallel and contradictory states, arguably articulates something of the sensibility of our time. Whilst he critically interrogates and gently mocks both his experience of the landscape and the art history from which his work emerges, there is sincerity, a real desire for connection. It is a romantic search, both optimistic and expressive of the melancholy of unmet expectations.
There is a wanting, a yearning for meaning, for meaningfulness. For something to have quality; to be a truth. But then there are the complications that come with that… a feeling that such meaning doesn’t really exist, so there is often disappointment, there is often frustration but ultimately there is a striving for this thing – wanting.
This wanting and desire is expressed in the energy and commitment that making the work demands. Walker works alone; there is no camera crew or assistance. Lining up his cut out mountain peak, carried on his back as he precariously climbs the y-frame ladder with his guitar, is a process of back and forth from the camera. Making a work is a demanding undertaking, which reveals the depth of the artist’s intention.
Thinking back to the perceptual break down of the artist as he hung his head between his legs, reveals the suggestion that the way we construct views of nature is much like the way we construct our view of the world perceptually in the most fundamental philosophical sense. Contrary to the warning in his letter, he does not wish that our relationship to nature ‘remains as it is’, we are repeatedly asked to question our perceptions. Ultimately the landscape functions as a platform upon which to explore ideas about what it is to be human, it is the mirror from which to look at ourselves; our wants and desires and subsequent failures to overcome the limits of language, to connect. In his own words, ‘when you are in these spaces, you are more aware of yourself than anywhere else’.
Quotes from conversation between Richard T Walker and Rebecca Partridge, May 2018.