Two Point(s) North
Countless journeys have begun with the plotting of Polaris, the North Star, actually a double star, by which to navigate. The experience of the Walker & Walker exhibition at the Sheppard Gallery is no exception. As if wishing away the confinement of four walls, the piece, Northern Star, involves a pinpoint piercing of the gallery lit up from behind by an LED bulb at the precise spot where, night after night, Polaris appears in the sky. There’s nothing necessarily spiritual or natural about this vision, however: it stands as an example of second nature, a doubling, at which Joe and Pat Walker excel particularly. But the cool modes of Conceptualist sparsity and site specificity are warmed by a Romantic longing to roam.
The very surname of the artist-collaborators, synonymous with “wanderer” or “flâneur” or “pedestrian,” suggests this yearning. As with most travels outside familiar territory, viewers (with the Walkers as guides) can expect moments of temporal and spatial disorientation; inexplicable occurrences of the seemingly mystical or magical; crossings between states of consciousness; sublime glimpses of nature – twilights and rising moons; and encounters with unexpected characters, among them: André Cadere, Caspar David Friedrich, Samuel Beckett and perhaps even René Magritte.
René Magritte’s 1937 painting Reproduction Prohibited stands as a characteristically surreal, uncanny upheaval of viewer expectation. If the choice of reference seems to follow a curious side path into the Walkers’ work, it is meant to indicate the artists’ own obliquity of approach. In Magritte’s image, a fairly nondescript man with his back to the viewer gazes into a mirror set atop a fireplace mantel. Alongside the mirror on this mantel lies a single object, Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which tells the tale of an increasingly bizarre sea voyage. What the man in the painting sees reflected in the mirror is not his face but the back of his head. He literally stands beside himself. The spectator sees the man’s back twice and furthermore, positioned before the painting, echoes the posture of this twice-represented figure, thus falling into a vertiginous mise-en-âbyme.
The image conjures two effects, both at the heart of Walker & Walker’s own series of artistic displacements. First, the man in the mirror doesn’t see his own familiar face as the singular marker of identity that he and, by extension, the viewer expect, but an eerie Doppelgänger, a doubling with an unsettling difference. This seems the appropriate moment to mention that the Walkers are identical twin brothers. Second, Magritte employs a classic device from the artists’ bag of tricks, albeit pushed to an experience-defying extreme: the Rückenfigur (figure seen from behind) most often associated with the German 19th-century painter Caspar David Friedrich. The Rückenfigur, as employed by Friedrich in paintings like Wanderer above a Sea of Fog from 1818, serves, on one hand, as a stand-in for the viewer offering an opportunity for mental projection and participation in what appears at first to be a solitary search for meaning while affording access to a typically Romantic awe-inspiring landscape of mist-enshrouded Alpine peaks. On the other hand, the figure occludes a portion of the view -- perhaps suggesting that any attempt at encompassing the sublime is doomed to fail. By definition the term refers to that which is ultimately unrepresentable, beyond comprehension, like cool transcendent blue on canvas – always receding, just beyond grasp. A small margin is left to mystery.
A very brief (art) history of the Sublime
Picking up the strands at our end of a long and complex Western tradition of engagement with the sublime, the Walkers come west to Reno -- one of the key sites of the traditional American sublime, set as it is against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but also fitting, with its spectacular downtown strip, into the category that writer David Nye has called the “American technological sublime.” The sublime, as a mode of aesthetic experience, has been defined from the beginning in counter-distinction to the beautiful: Kant wrote that “The sublime moves; the beautiful charms." Most generally it is associated with a pleasurable anxiety occurring while viewing threatening or overwhelming sights in nature or in art such as raging oceans or dizzying mountain peaks. The first known postulation of the category occurs in the writings of the Greek pseudo-Longinus from the 1st Century AD.
Romantic art of the late 18th- and 19th-centuries, encompassing Friedrich’s era, is most strongly identified with the sublime and has its roots in the philosophical writings of Edmund Burke (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Feelings of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1737) and Immanuel Kant (Critique of Judgment, 1790). For Burke the sublime was associated with both literal height and heightening of sensation. As such, a spectator in the thrall of the sublime would be beside him- or herself. For Kant, the pleasure involved in the sublime occurred only as the mental faculty of reason began to assert control over physical and emotional feelings of awe.
In 1948 New York School painter Barnett Newman carried the sublime into a modern register by arguing against representation and for direct presentation. His large-scale paintings, like Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-1) measuring nearly 8 by 18 feet, aimed to immerse viewers in broad swathes of color. Newman hoped that his viewers would stand before these canvases in exaltation, face to face with the sublime, like Caspar David Friedrich’s small monk, subsumed by an expanse of largely empty sky and sea. By shifting emphasis from the artist’s expression to the viewer’s experience, Newman’s vertical zips functioned like inviting doors left ajar to the next generations of Conceptual artists.
Bringing the sublime closer to the contemporary moment also in specific relation to art practice, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote of a postmodern sublime falling into two distinct categories: the nostalgic sublime that looks toward the past and involves piecing together quotations from art’s history and the forward-looking avant-garde sublime. The Walkers partake of both. For Lyotard it is the second, more difficult category that really matters. With the avant-garde sublime, Lyotard moves against Kant by assigning value to those events and experiences that extend beyond reason. Since these experiences defy verbal articulation, Lyotard sees experimental visual art as a privileged border zone extending beyond the comforts of language, as a potential site for the emergence of radically new possibilities.
If, however, the sublime is a repository from which the brothers Walker draw, the resulting objects and images constitute something of an oxymoron – that is, an understated sublime -- involved not with the Romantic bombast of authentic emotion and singular effects of nature but rather with subtler reiterations, echoes.
Caspar David Friedrich has served as a fixed point of reference and return for the Walkers. In their frequently shown work, The Wanderer from 1999 (not included in this exhibition), they have liberated the Rückenfigur from his mediating position in Wanderer above a Sea of Fog. The viewer is left to ponder that other imaginary Friedrich painting, with a gaze now free to roam through the landscape unobstructed. Made object of image, the real presence in the gallery is a life-size replica of the figure clad in his green velvet suit and, significantly, carrying his walking stick. The Wanderer would seem to have lost the sublimity of the source painting were it not for the feat of levitation he performs, hovering a couple of inches above the floor on a cushion of white light.
“My twin, the nameless one, wild in the woods.”
--John Berryman’s 255th Dream Song
In Friedrich’s Morning of 1821, a lone oarsman rows out onto a lake surrounded by a pine forest. The painting sets the scene for Nightfall (2004), the Walkers’ short film -- although they have replaced the buttery warmth of sunrise with a chilly, crepuscular shade of greenish-blue. (Kant: “Night is sublime, day is beautiful.”). Nightfall involves a meditation on the various meanings of the word “reflection” resonating with the myths of Narcissus and Echo. In it, a solitary protagonist moves through the woods to the side of a lake -- in actuality the Königsee in Bavaria, another Friedrich haunt. The wanderer picks up two stones, puts one in his pocket and lets the other fall to the ground before boarding a rowboat. He rows and ruminates on the encroaching darkness. Then he sees his double, a shadow figure on the shore. The Doppelgänger picks up the previously dropped stone and lets it fall into the lake before disappearing into thin air. The man in the boat is shaken, but lifts his oars and rows on. The final words of the film are
But, for now, all is going down,
The day is no more
But the darkness of the night and the silence of the unsayable
Have not closed to deny space itself,
An external space peopled by others,
A darkness so close it can only be likened to skin
Beneath which is the internal space peopled by ourselves alone
And yet within us the beings of our memories
In which whatever falls continues falling… falling [echo].
The tenor of these words approaching a definition of the sublime, the absurdity of the situation, and the central image of a single stone remaining in a pocket suggest the work of another Irishman, Samuel Beckett -- especially the famous episode of Molloy’s sucking stones. Having sixteen stones and only four pockets and one mouth, Molloy obsessively works through how he might arrive at a way to suck his stones in sequence without repetition. He concludes: “And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or swallowed.” In both cases, the protagonist contends with the incomprehensible gray chaos of the world, attempts to parcel it out through sucking or walking or rowing – perhaps a Kantian effort at rationalization -- and finally accepts an ambiguous solution that involves a cleavage: internalization and/or letting go.
The walking stick reappears now striped black, blue, and white resting against a gallery wall and bearing the title Ghost of Cadere (2008). Here Walker & Walker make indirect reference to Friedrich’s Wanderer, perhaps, but the gesture of this object’s inclusion in the exhibition conjures the spirit of André Cadere. Cadere was born in Poland and moved to Paris to become the consummate flâneur of the Situationist generation. He died in 1978 at the age of 45 and has since gathered something of an underground cult following. He would leave his sticks (les barres du bois ronds) at art world and other events to which he hadn’t, or sometimes had, been invited. For example, in the autumn of 1972 in Paris one barre could be found in the Sonnabend Gallery, then at Yvon Lambert, later in the window of Darcy’s Bakery Shop, and finally in an exhibition space called Le Grand Chic Parisien devoted to the sartorial trends of the 1930’s. The peripatetic rods accompanied him on random walks and scheduled street appearances through cities as well – ventures all carefully documented with maps and type-written texts. The sticks were assembled of small blocks of wood painted in bold primary colors. In construction, the blocks were alternated to form a pattern of color determined by indecipherable mathematical formulas. Cadere claimed to have included a small error in each pattern -- a metaphor perhaps for his own inobtrusive interruptions of the art world’s business as usual. The 180 barres de bois aren’t the essence the practice that Cadere referred to as “painting without end” and blurring the boundaries delineating sculpture, performance, institutional critique, logic, living, walking, and painting. They function indexically like lines of graffiti reading “André was here.” They are what he left behind.
“The sublime is now.” – Barnett Newman
In the Walker’s Now (not included in this exhibition), a book of Shakespeare lies open to King Lear, Act IV, Scene VI in which the blind Gloucester, Lear’s double, has been tricked into thinking that he stands perilously perched at the edge of a precipitous cliff. He thrusts himself forward and swoons. Upon awakening he is convinced that he has experienced a miracle. There is perhaps no better illustration of the sublime as aesthetic category than this near leap into the abyss. What is left to be read on the Walkers’ effaced page in the open book are the words “now now now now.” Similarly, the recent Night Drawings (2008) involve a twist on manuscript illumination (manuscript obliteration?). Pages torn from books with titles referring to night have been almost completely covered over. With the exception of relevant phrases like “nothing but a dark night,” “down will come the sky,” “into the room the night plunges” -- what remain visible are book page numbers and all the letters “o” gleaming like so many stars in an ink-black sky.
Two Men Contemplating the Moon – title of two nearly identical paintings by Caspar David Friedrich
“From the hills another joy came down. I mean the brief scattered lights that sprang up on their slopes at nightfall, merging in blur scarcely brighter than the sky, less bright than the stars, and which the palest moon extinguished. They were things that scarcely were, on the confines of silence and dark, and soon ceased.”
– Samuel Beckett from Malone Dies
The title of the Walker & Walker exhibition at the Sheppard Gallery, Ill Seen, Ill Heard, stems from a slight alteration of the title of one of Samuel Beckett’s last works, a short story called “Ill Seen, Ill Said” (1980-1). The lifelong battle Beckett waged on words, through words, is called up by the Walker’s inclusion of a new piece, a single line of text suggestive of, but not directly attributed to Maurice Blanchot, the theorist of absence. The words typed on white paper read, “It does not exist by virtue of a play of words.” This invocation is paradoxical for it gestures to that which is beyond words, what is made material, but through the medium of language.
Beckett, the Walkers’ countryman, was also a great admirer of Caspar David Friedrich. It has been said that while writing Waiting for Godot he often thought about Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819/c. 1830), suggested by some to be a self-portrait of the painter -- from the back, of course -- alongside his favorite student who had recently died. Friedrich returned to this subject again and again. In their most recent works, Erased Paintings (2008), Walker & Walker have meticulously whitened out Friedrich paintings reproduced as book illustrations with an eraser, leaving only glimmering slivers and orbs of moons in miniature hanging in otherwise empty but palpable, satin-white skyscapes. Two men contemplating the moon, indeed.