I show up early for a private viewing of LESS IS MORE, Keith Walker’s new show at the Alberta Craft Council Discovery Gallery. My first discovery is that this gallery is upstairs, not downstairs where I thought. There, in the feature gallery, is another show well worth viewing, MASTERWORKS.
My second discovery is that the name LESS IS MORE is misleading. LESS doesn’t factor into this work in any way at first blush. There is plenty going on here, and it’s going to take me a while to digest it all.
The space is small. Similar in size to the Bleeding Heart gallery, perhaps even smaller at under 500 square feet I’d guess. This means that works are fairly close together, making the juxtapositions and connections between them especially pronounced.
I start with the most sensual, tactile piece–a dyptich of wall-hung glass balls, frosted vivid pink or aqua blue against a canvas of white fur. The fur brings an organic interpretation to the whole piece–the balls are now fish eggs. Blood cells. Ocean bubbles. The pieces are not exactly beautiful. Actually, in some sense, they are unsettling. Is it the hard glass pinned to the soft fur that makes me uneasy? The strange connections my mind is making to a fireplace, a glass of wine and a polar bear rug? Are these two lovers? Blue for boy, pink for girl? Perhaps this is the moment of conception for the rest of the work to follow? This is the same Keith Walker who once gave us Rudolph the Red Nose Christmas Sperm, after all.
I move on from biology to microbiology. The next piece is more familiar. I’ve seen these micro-turned-macro creatures of Keith’s before, in another show. The curated colour palatte, the swirl up the wall, the organic wiggle of it all is a a lot of fun to look at. These shapes are alien, but inviting, too. They welcome a close lean in. Unlike the next set of sculptures I approach.
I’m now confronted by formiddible spikes, jutting towards me from the wall. In cold blues and whites these cones of various size end in sharp points. They could be the tips of giant pencils, but look more to me like icicles–the worst parts of a coming winter. That’s not to say these aren’t beutiful pieces. They are, but not lovely. They are ice-fierce as Narnia's White Witch. Technically, I’m impressed how they hang here, still and steady in defiance of all. Even gravity. These are the pieces used by Keith Walker on promotional postcards, where they appear to rise from a plinth, vertical rather than horizontally hung on a wall. They are far more gentle in those images. I’m reminded how a slight shift in persepctive can change everything. It’s not just the work that matters, but the way the work is shown. Not just the memory that counts, but the way it is framed. I’ll remember this later.
If we began at some sort of conception, we are evolving now, past an ancient ice age and gaining fins.
Schools of fish come next.
The most nostalgic piece of this show comes along the large windows, up against frosted panes that stand in for murky lake water. There are fish swimming. Fish hanging from lines. Fish turning in the breeze. In the centre there are vintage fishing poles.
My dad is a fisherman to the core. I remember his highest praises from the one time I caught a fish with my bare hands, reaching down into the stream. Fish are slippery. Like memory. They are fast and hard to hold. But here they are, frozen in time. Once molten, shifting forms. Now still. Ready to be touched and held. I wonder about Keith’s own fishing stories. If this is a tribute to his own father. If his own dad talks about fishing almost exlusively to this day. Certainly he doesn’t work in a tackle shop, like my dad. But perhaps there is some bond here, held and frozen and repeated over and again. The nostalgia is warm and palpable. But all things must end.
The ghosts come next. They are playful, for sure. But still, somehow, ominous. It’s the clock–the found object–that introduces some menace. An old metal clock–a curious piece-hangs next to the ghosts. Interprets the ghosts. Saves the ghosts from kitsch and brings them some deeper meaning. There is a switch on the clock. I turn it on. The clock spins backward. It’s gears churn. It is not a quiet churning. Keith laughs from elsewhere in the gallery. He’s here, watching me take this all in. He tells me he couldn’t get the clock mechanism any quieter. He tried. I think it’s perfect. It makes this moment public. It pulls me into the present. It dares me to keep the time reversing, knowing full well how discruptive an excercise that is. I turn it off.
I detour now, towards the centre of the room. Two plyths. More spires, these ones the orange-yellow of flame. These ones rising up. Dancing, even. Next to these are black mushrooms. Shining but for the shards of raw glass stuck in spots like fungal growth. This centre must be the show's swampland. The marsh where things grow in a damp muggy heat.
There is more to the mushrooms than a first glance offers. I look underneath to discover bright and sparkling colours. I’m not convinced the experiment is entirely successfull here, but it is something I haven’t seen before. This central set of works is perhaps the core of the whole show. We have fire. All of Walker’s work is born in flame. All of it is tenous and changing. Unpredictable. Becoming something else. Exploring. Fully alive. These mushrooms are no exception. They may be a new direction. A growth both beautiful and strange, depending where you look.
Speaking of strange, I’m ready now for the final piece. The truck balls.
The blown glass truck balls, calling me over since I entered. The blown glass truck balls, hung from a chrome bumper. The veinous blown glass truck balls, all too detailed. The heart-pump-purple blown glass veinous truck balls, suspended by chains to the hitch below a vanity licence plate that reads ‘MANMADE’. This is Keith Walker as only Keith Walker could be.
This is a fitting cap on the show. Keith Walker, putting himself out there in Alberta. Keith Walker of the city that once gave Oprah truck balls as a gift. Keith Walker the wry comedian, always ready to make you laugh at least as much as he makes you think. Keith Walker, never quite prepared to take himself too seriously. Keith Walker, who now literally ‘has the balls’ to show this kind of work.
Visually it’s kind of gross, but I’m guessing that’s the point. There is still beauty here. An understanding of the medium. Just how organic and fleshy hardened glass can look. There’s something to the fragility of glass and the sensitivity of this particular body part. Perhaps, behind all the fun, Keith Walker is making himself vulnerable.
In the realm of meaning, we’ve come full circle. This piece is as sexual, or not, as the first. Both are blending new mediums with glass. The first incredible soft. The final, hard as steel. From the white fur conception on those initial clusters of coloured glass ‘eggs’, I’ve travelled the evolution of Keith Walker’s career. Some moments calm as a fishing pond. Perhaps others haunting like little ghosts. At least in the world of Keith Walker’s making, time can move backwards. There’s a switch for that.
Now that I’m done I suppose it’s time to read the artist statement.
It’s time to discover whether or not my personal take on things is crazy. I know that matters to very little to some, but I'd like to know if I’m hearing what Keith Walker is trying to say, since he went to all this effort.
From Keith Walker’s artist statment;
"With this exhibition Less is More, I am exploring the notion of a simpler way of life and an honest day’s work. I remember as a young boy spending time out at my grandparent’s farm, jumping in the hay barn, gathering eggs from the chickens, riding goats by the horns and learning how to drive cars out in the open field. This series of mixed-media installations are my interpretations of childhood memories. I will be incorporating my custom blown and fused components of glasswork with found objects. The addition of re-purposed materials is a continuation of my exploration of the installation art-form."
To be fair, I was aware of at least the memory bit before entering. I prefer coming to a work as open as possible, to take it in and reflect in this way and only then to go back to the source for the other end of the conversation.
Memories are tricky things. Restless things. Sometimes troublesome things. Some we choose to keep–to harden and shine and display. Others, we leave behind. Perhaps in the kiln everything can be melted down and made into something else entirely. Something new. Something beautiful.