A Conversation With Kelley Walker Upon The Opening Of ‘Direct Drive’ At Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Kelley Walker opened his first solo American show, “Direct Drive” at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis this past weekend.

When I ask Walker why he chose the title of the show and what it represents, he chuckles, saying that he and his friends have talked countlessly about the title. Then he tells me, “I guess I’m thinking more of like where we are in time. That’s all.”

Time plays a particular role in Walker’s work as he uses advertisements, magazine covers, photographs, and varying objects, layering, cutting, folding, and scanning them to show just how easily what we’ve come to see over time can and has been manipulated. “Direct Drive” draws on personal and collective time and memory as the artist pushes his audience to consider not only the world that surrounds them, but very much how they are a part of that world. As the gallery guide states, through his work, Walker “holds a mirror up to our current cultural imaginary, elucidating our present day and recent past in radical unexpected ways.”

On the morning of his show opening, Walker said to a room full of press and donors that his work often begins with an absence of language. However, viewing the artist’s work, one almost has an immediate desire to define, to draw conclusions, to take offense.

Take for example, his series “schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions.”In one piece for the series, he presents a larger-than-life image of the hip-hop artist Trina and pop artist Kelis on the cover of the men’s magazine King. For the piece, Walker has scanned the magazines covers, smeared toothpaste onto the scanner and stretched the image to fit from the top of the wall and spread onto the floor of the gallery space. The images are layered on top of each other, both a literal practice in Walker’s work, as well as a representation of the layers of meaning that images can hold.

During a walk-through of the show, the curator of the exhibition, Jeffrey Uslip, mentions that the piece can be read as a whitening of the black body, objectification of women’s bodies on the covers of magazines, or so many other assumptions that can be made when one puts words to images. “With some works, when they first appear, they don’t have language yet attached to them,” Walker tells me. “And different ways kind of allow for language to be attached. It could be word of mouth. It could be in terms of community.”

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Walker has also created new pieces specifically for his show at CAM. He debuts a series of sculptures, including MacBook Pros that have been laser-cut, folded and turned inside out; a four-foot-wide chocolate disco ball; a brick painting based on the concrete of CAM, as well as a projection on the Museum’s facade. However, one of the artist’s most talked-about and arguably controversial works sits in the middle of the show: “Black Star Press.”

On the opposite side of “schema,” “Black Star Press” is installed on two walls. The series features images of a Civil Rights Movement protest enlarged on canvas and then silkscreened with melted white, milk and dark chocolate. Each canvas is rotated in 90-degree increments. In one rotation, the viewer sees a police officer at the top of the canvas with a black man at the bottom; another rotation shows both men flipped on top of their heads.

He created the piece in 2005, but it renders comparisons to images that have been taken in the past three years of national protest against police brutality. “A lot of that had to do with me and other people working with it in a larger context, larger than me, larger in different spectrums,” Walker says.  “Like in museums and institutions, art collectors, gallerists, artists, a lot of writers. It’s so much bigger than me. A lot has to do with time and what was made and the turn of things over and over again.”

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When describing “Black Star Press,” Walker tells us about his personal memories. He tells us that he was born in Columbus, Georgia in the 1960s and that he was a part of a desegregation program in public schools, and was one of only a handful of white kids in a predominantly black school. He talks about the Coca-Cola red that is featured in the series and how a Coca-Cola sign appears in the background of the picture and how the beverage was produced in his home state of Georgia.

But, he says, there is a difference between personal memories and collective memories. “I don’t think my own history is any less interesting or more interesting than yours,” he says. “That’s the problem with when you’re speaking, people seem to focus. That’s why I’m really skeptical and why I think it’s really problematic because it can be easily persuasive. Collective memory is something we’re so a part of.”

In the book, “Black Star Press,” which accompanies the show (and is available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop) famed critic Hilton Als pens an essay titled “Yvonne.” In the opening he writes, “I am so tired of words preceding the experience of looking.” “Black Star Press” has been met with some controversy over the years, mostly criticism of a white artist using black bodies as the subject of his work. In his essay, Als, a black gay male, writes that he didn’t know much about the controversy surrounding Walker’s work prior to viewing it, and is grateful that he didn’t.

“Grateful that I could see the work without words,” Als writes. “Without anyone else’s ideas mucking up his vision.” Walker tells me that he knows he has to be responsible for the work that he creates and presents for public viewing. Als goes on to write “I was struck, almost at once, by Kelley Walker’s authenticity … the tension of Walker wanting to say and not say what he was saying.”

Images courtesy of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

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