Desert Prophet in an Age of Deserted Profits
It is remarkable that the English word desert, which denotes a place, also bares no linguistic difference from its verb tense which means to desert or to leave. It is a word that simultaneous signifies both being and non-being, place and placelessness. In this regard it is unlike the word prophet who’s audible twin refers to that other great metaphysical activity of our times, the divination of profit. The recent works of Stephen Walters can bee seen as taking something from each of these terms as well as their doubles.
His recent abstract paintings, which are based on allowing the natural processes of the desert to slowly transform cotton duck canvases, allow Walters to act as something of a vanishing mediator. While coming well after the heyday of ‘end game’ polemics in painting Walter’s work still seems to function as an extreme example of the postmodern obsession with the death of originality and autonomy. But as Roland Barthes noted long ago, the death of the author is also the birth of the reader – and if this is indeed the case, how are we to interpret Walters use of faded grids and folded forms? -As an anti-metaphysical outlook on the passing importance of the grid in control societies (contra Peter Halley)? –Or as a memento mori of abstraction’s heroic and essentialist past (contra Mondrian and Malevich)? -Or is this well-trodden discourse of the end of painting merely a jumping off point for an eco-friendly (post-) postmodern perspective based on an increasing awareness of the passing of time, of natural processes and of our implied impact on the world around us. Certainly the dialectic of forces at play in Walter’s desert paintings consists of suturing these elements together without providing any easy resolution. In fact, it would seem as if his paintings are able to slip in and out of these paradigmatic prisms while working hard to inhabit a new set of contradictions.
Walter’s high contrast silkscreens of photographed statements scrawled on the rock formations not far from his Joshua Tree studio seem to function in a number of similar registers. If the marked sayings inscribed on these barren places have come to mean anything important to us today, it is as an index of the anti-cosmopolitan urge to be timely; to be all too contemporary; to be “with it.” What was written or graffitied on these large stones and rocky formations was meant to last for some time – it was written as a contemplative text, as a journey text, as desert prophecy – and as such it is a kind of writing that hopes to have a longer life span than the spasmatic tweets of our cacophonic twitter-minded culture. So what are we to think of Walter’s stark sepia toned pictures which make the captured texts feel detached from nature’s stilted surfaces, almost creating a virtual or transcendent space that seems to defy perspectival laws? Is it that in relocating these works/words to the city that the language of the desert begins to act as a screen between the viewer and the cosmopolitan values associated with urbanization? Is it the concrete image of a type of discourse which isn’t meant for the fast rotation of exhibition scheduling and the profit driven cycle of commerce? – or is it a blunt cry against the machinations of hyperbolic capital? I think it’s safe to say that Walter’s work attempts to court some, if not all of these issues, through the idiom of structuralist photography placed in the service of locating a type of language that stands in for the big other of commercialism.
As for his sculpture of walled-up bricks taken from the period of California modernism located between Wright and Eichler, (those other two great prophets of the desert), how are we to interpret its arrangement and position amidst these other works? Does its singular presence provide a window onto the meaning behind the other elements in the show or is it simply another model of mid-century modernism in ruin? – Or is it trying to get at something else altogether? These concrete blocks, stacked precariously one on top of the other, originally functioned as decorative elements rather than structural supports in as much as they are not solid cinder blocks through and through. Their rectangular outside is culled into an organic interior shape often used for garden brickwork or as a supplement to walkways. But by being stacked up on their sides we are left to wonder whether or not it is a monument to aging design or the fragility of our own notions of good taste and style. While Walters varied works actively interrogate the presuppositions of twentieth century art in a way that is rewarding and sometimes overtly intellectual, one would be wrong to assume that they give up all their meaning in that register alone. These desert works, or deserted works as the case may be, are evidence of an everyday shaman who specializes in understanding appearances - who transforms the mundane into the otherworldly - and in seeking a new turn of mind also introduces us to the incomprehensibility of mystical experience.