Kelley Walker’s second solo show is optically on fire, intellectually edgy, physically lush, and installed like a wrap-around panorama. His digital prints and chocolate on canvas are vivacious and stylish, his touch and domineering scale luring. Nonetheless, the show is vexed by questions.
Walker’s work is a kaleidoscopic combination of Warhol, Pollock, Dieter Roth, Richard Prince, and the artist no one wants to mention for fear of casting a pall over the mélange, Julian Schnabel. Walker’s paintings feature pictures of the 1963 Birmingham race riots. These images are coated with silk screens of splashy paint and chocolate. The visual effects are riveting and the sweet smell makes you get as close to these paintings as one dog will to another. Walker puts race at the center of his work but he’s not treating this hot button American issue as seriously, personally, or originally as he does the issue of painting. He simply defaults to an easy art world position around reproduction and appropriation.
This problem isn’t Walker’s alone, and it doesn’t stop him from being one of the best young artists around. Similar issues afflict a number of artists in the Whitney Biennial. It is difficult to approach the hard issues of the world, yet if we don’t let more of the world into our work it’s likely that the world will let less of our work into it.