“Decorative” is a bit of a dirty word in the art world. It’s why we say “interior decorators” instead of something like “décor artists.” In galleries and museums, the word “ornamental” is preferred, describing artwork that incorporates motifs from traditional crafts, fashion or architecture into a larger statement or meaning. If, in the context of your work, you scrutinize an aspect or example of craft, then you’re considering the ornamental. But if the work doesn’t mean beyond its aesthetic fact, it might be dismissed as merely decorative.
- Photo by Chris Vitiello
- “Juliette the Baptist,” acrylic, paper and polyester flowers on panel, 20×36″
Robin Walker’s painted work in the exhibition New Uses for Old Things, on view at Durham’s Carrack Modern Art Gallery through Feb. 23, examines two ornamental forms: the printed patterns of fabric and wallpaper and the poses of female models and celebrities in commercial photography. In 11 paintings—and one giant papier-mâché vagina—the Saxapahaw-based painter repopulates religious Renaissance tableaux with contemporary women and displays some mad freehand chops in her trompe l’oeil duplication of print patterns.
The full-body portrait “Juliette the Baptist” is Walker’s best riff on a religious original, copping an aspect of Caravaggio’s beheaded St. John the Baptist. A woman poses jauntily in a slim brown suit against a dim, indeterminate background, grasping what seems to be the severed head of the actress Julianne Moore. Walker applies minimal sculptural collage to render the gore streaming from the neck to the painting’s ground. Something between thick rose petals and a bright red version of bracket fungi is affixed to the panel in bloody bunches.
Tonally, this woman could have stepped right off the pages of Vogue. She conveys feminine independence without overt sexuality, but the head she’s lugging looks just like her. Walker’s pointing out that independence has a habit of eating the independences of others. It’s a lesson that St. John learned the hard way.
Walker’s “A Real Simple Supper,” which populates Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” table with women including Martha Stewart in Jesus’ place, is less successful but more fun to scrutinize to try to recognize the guests. The precise renderings of faces read as discordant beneath an unwieldy black-paneled ceiling. It’s unclear why the painting is executed differently in different areas of the canvas, so the women slip out of allegory and into parody here.
- Photo by Chris Vitiello
- “Allotrop of Carbon,” acrylic, plastic ring and meta attachment on canvas
Feminist interrogations aside, the real revelation in Walker’s work is her rendition of fabric patterns, which show up in several paintings. If you don’t break stride in the gallery, you might assume that Walker glued bold print fabric to her panels and painted overtop of it. But when you stop to look closely, you can see her illusionistic handiwork and, thus, her sharp eye and sheer patience.
“Allotrope of Carbon” is the smallest work in the show and the most exemplary. A square canvas is mounted as a diamond shape with its bottom point terminating in a small brass attachment. The canvas is painted like grandma’s summer dress, with pink and yellow roses clustered across a lavender field. However, that Victorian field is interrupted by a cascading gush of extruded, spaghetti-like pink and orange paint strands. Massed at the canvas’ top point, the tangle of strands holds a large, faceted diamond.
An allotrope is one of multiple possible forms of the same element from the periodic table. For instance, graphite and diamond are allotropes of carbon. We assign completely different values to those forms. One is priceless, the other almost worthless, although they differ only in the physical arrangement of the same atoms. Walker implicates value as a subjective and extrinsic property of inanimate objects. Diamonds have social value, while St. Juliette doesn’t necessarily. She’s just an image or a projection.
While “Allotrope of Carbon” works perfectly on a small scale, it seems like Walker really wants to work larger in several of the other works. If you can mentally click and drag the corner of many of these works to quadruple their size, they become less congested as their internal elements move further from each other. The thinking doesn’t have room to come out of paintings like “Jill’s Pieta.” In the best of these works, you can see Walker either balancing or pitting against each other poles of pattern and chaos. But because the opposites don’t have room to establish themselves as such, they read as chaotic overall and the pattern’s presence is overrun.
- Photo by Chris Vitiello
- “Flowers and Cherries,” acrylic, styrofoam and papier-mache on panel
“Flowers and Cherries” is a collaged painting on a 24-inch by 18-inch panel, but it’s very hard to focus upon it because there’s so much going on. Of course Walker’s underpainting is remarkably executed—four different patterns including blue-outline magnolia-like blossoms on a white field and sky-blue dots in a tight lattice of offset rows on a dark blue field. Papier-mâché elements from these print patterns protrude from the surface of the panel. Blue spheres sit in darker blue puddles. A china-cup magnolia curls out at you from the center of the painting.
A really compelling idea—the element of a pattern becoming animate and escaping the flat surface of the painting into the three-dimensional—loses itself in the execution at this scale, however. You might not catch the imageplay because so much is going on in such a small space. But if this were a 4-foot by 3-foot work, or bigger, then the flat pattern and sculptural elements would step forth as equal.
All painting surfaces have their pros and cons. With wood panels, it’s hard to afford or construct larger ones without their getting unwieldy or suffering some warping once paint’s applied to them. But it’s possible. Ashlynn Browning, in wood-panel work shown in November and December at Flanders Gallery, jumped a level in size over previous panel work. Adam Cave Fine Art has exhibited some of Will Goodyear’s paintings on salvaged hollow core doors which Goodyear even links into triptychs.
- Photo by Chris Vitiello
- “Mother of Pearl,” acrylic, papier mache, spray paint, plastic bags, string and twine
The largest object in New Uses for Old Things is “Mother of Pearl,” the giant vagina. Reminiscent of Stephanie Liner’s womb-like capsules (skinned in lushly patterned upholstery fabrics and containing female figures—live models at the opening—that stare out at you through a porthole) seen at Artspace last summer, Walker’s wall sculpture is instead about its blatant exteriority. The rough but unmistakable anatomical rendition features a bright blue clitoris and leaf stencils, and trails a red tampon string, which coils into a neat spiral on the floor.
Because it’s larger than you are, “Mother of Pearl” converts the front of the Carrack into a performance zone that you must enter in order to view it. You manifest some certain behavior in how you physically relate to the work. Perhaps you find it to be an intimidating protrusion and you avoid it. Perhaps you approach it in defiance of its presence. You might intellectualize in front of it or crack dirty jokes. Regardless, the vagina wields the power in the open situational drama that Walker’s set up. If the women depicted in the other painted tableaux are mute, commercial figures, this sculpture shouts on their behalf.
It doesn’t particularly care what value you place upon it. Intrinsic value can take that position.