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Larry Walker. Image courtesy the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

A conversation with Larry Walker, recipient of the 2016 Nexus Award

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Larry Walker is known to many in Atlanta as a valued professor who taught generations of students at Georgia State University where he served as the Director of the School of Art and Design from 1983 to 1994 and as Professor of Drawing and painting from 1983-2000. He is also known as the father of artist Kara Walker, who won the prestigious MacArthur fellowship at the age of 28 and has exhibited her work in important institutions around the globe.

Now three important events signify a shift in attention to Larry Walker, the artist. This summer, he had a solo survey of his work at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in New York. Currently on view is “Selected Works by Larry Walker” at the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design Gallery at Georgia State University and on September 23, he will receive the Nexus Award from Atlanta Contemporary.

These coinciding events provided an opportunity for ArtsATL to speak with Walker about the internal and external forces that have influenced his work and about what drives him to continue to create.

Listen (to da beat), Wall Series (extension with wall spirits), 2008 Mixed materials, microphone and sandbox Approx. 93.75 x 107 x 17 inches (238.1 x 271.8 x 43.2 cm), overall. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.
Listen (to da beat), Wall Series (extension with wall spirits), 2008. Mixed materials, microphone and sandbox. Approx. 93.75 x 107 x 17 inches. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.

ArtsATL: Your work holds an interesting position within the larger conversation of national and international contemporary art. It doesn’t focus on the identity politics that many of your generation engaged with but seems to take a more humanistic view of the world. Your Children of Society series looks at a generation of youth and your Metamorphic series explores the multiple personalities we all have. Was it a conscious decision for you to concentrate on issues that relate to mankind?

Larry Walker: Yes, very conscious. In fact, when those series started, I wasn’t too aware of things that were going on in the art world nationally. I was aware of what was going on in the civil rights movements and the relationship between the activities in the movement and the song written by Janis Ian called “Society’s Child.” The Children of Society series tried to address the notion of people in their various daily struggles for all kinds of issues: self-respect, economic gain and feeling oppressed because there was always a line, a competition, a barrier that kept them from going any further. Toward the end of the series that line bent and eventually eroded away and became a cloud form so there is still a little vestige of that floating around. But prior to that, there was my notion that there is something greater than what you see, a double environment. There is an interior self and an exterior self.

What you show to the public and what you feel are not always the same thing.

My grandfather was a preacher, I had a brother who was a preacher, and my mother was religious and she took us to church and insisted we went to Sunday school. After Sunday school I would come away with the notion that the only thing the teacher focused on was dress nice, come to Sunday school and bring your money. Why was this necessary? I would see the same people who were teaching Sunday school or were members of the church around the neighborhood during the week not dressed nice, not acting nice, doing things that you wouldn’t anticipate them doing. There was a double standard.

Some of the attitude that grew out of that [realization] became part of the context of my work. There’s a duality. When you look at some of the figures, there’s another person inside of a person. It’s become even more pronounced now in the recent Metamorphic series where all kinds of people and animals and other creatures show up.

ArtsATL: These themes that you are looking at are accessible to everyone, regardless of age, background, race or history.

Walker: That’s very normal to me. Perhaps that came about because when I went to the New York High School for Music and Art in eighth grade, my life changed. Prior to that, I was born in Georgia and lived in Harlem. All the students I had been associated with were Black. I lived in a Black environment.  

When I went to the High School for Music and Art, that changed. The students there were from Lithuania and other countries, various other parts of the city. They had different backgrounds: there were Jewish kids, Catholic kids. Everyone got along pretty well. The thing that bound everyone together was that we were either interested in art or in music or in some cases both.

I remember writing when I was in high school about the first leaves of the fall, how they hit the ground and were all mingled together. I translated that into all races mingling together. During the civil rights movement there was a focus on OK, why do we have to have these two groups, White versus Black and Black versus White? Why can’t we coexist?

ArtsATL: If you could organize a group exhibition with three other artists who you would like to see your work in conversation with, who would those three people be?

Walker: One would be Raymond Saunders, who is a California-based artist. The connection with him probably happened years ago. Someone said to me, “I would really like to show your work and Raymond Saunders’ work together.” So I looked him up and we eventually met and there was a kind of connection between our work, which was mixed media, oil painting with things added. Another would be early Rauschenberg stuff if I could find it. I don’t like the later stuff; it doesn’t have any color. And the third would be Eva Hesse, her textural work and the pieces where she has something hanging from the piece.

ArtsATL: Eva Hesse is interesting because in your Wall series you are physically moving off the two-dimensional plane and incorporating Plexiglas, wood, wires, street signs and things. When did this start?

Walker: I’m not sure I can even pin down when it started but it has to do with the question of why things have to live within the rectangular or square or circular space that is presented by the paper company or those who make the stretcher bars. Things don’t have to live in that space. They can push beyond that. I’ve been pushing beyond that for a long time. It goes back to the Microscape series. I was working on landscapes but they managed to break outside of the circle and move into space so there was dual space. That has carried through many pieces, particularly the collage work because the collage pieces would break off the edges.

ArtsATL: In looking back through your career, you have very methodically worked through ideas. The one exception seems to be the Wall series, which you have revisited over the years. How do you select a subject to explore and decide when it is done?

Microscape I, Microscape Series, 1967 Watercolor on paper. 20 x 20 inches 50.8 x 50.8 cm. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.
Microscape I, Microscape Series, 1967. Watercolor on paper. 20 x 20 inches. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.

Walker: I don’t think of myself as exploring subjects. The Wall series grew out of the Truck series. The Truck series grew out of something else. The fact that one thing led to the other just kind of happened. It wasn’t something that I consciously sat down and thought about. It is fluid.

The Wall series has certain characteristics that need to happen [for a piece to be included]. If I need to do something to the surface of the paper or the canvas first, like the brick pattern, then there are certain things I need to do. But I don’t have a preconceived notion of what is going to happen next. The collage elements that happen are not preplanned, they happen in process. Most of the decisions of what is used are based on what has happened already in the piece or whether or not there’s going to be a figurative element. The shadow that appears in many of these did not happen until well into the series. Once I have a notion of these things, then it is a matter of completing the composition. I look at it from an analytical point of view; I look at the color balance, rhythm, variety and so forth. At some point, it all seems to click.

ArtsATL: The figure that you mentioned, the shadow, often takes the form of an elderly gentleman hunched over, sometimes with a cane. Is this autobiographical? A way to insert yourself into the work?

Walker: Some of the shadows are me but very few. There are also women. The shadow represents someone who is in the peripheral end of life, someone who is sick, homeless, having trouble some way or another. Many carry their belongings with them. Many of them are walking with canes or some other form of aid. They appear as shadows because most people don’t have enough time to pay any attention to them. They ignore them and avoid them.

The shadows themselves have a tendency not to pay a lot of attention to some of the finite things around them because they’re too focused on what they have to do: find a place to sleep, find a place to eat.

In a couple of pieces I place myself in there. There is one piece called Shadow Spirit at Dusk (2009), that has a shadow of me, walking bent over with a cane and there’s a reverse shadow going in the opposite direction. It’s fading out, you can barely see it. It’s like I’m still going but I’m fading, little by little.  

ArtsATL: Spirits also seem to figure in your various series. What do these figures signify for you?

Walker: It relates to the idea of there being someone else inside of you. The spirit thing may also be a remnant of those questions of religion that are still floating around. The spirit form can be pleasant or it can be mysterious or it can be horrific.

Years ago, I had a studio at the far end of the [University of the Pacific] campus where I was teaching. One Sunday morning, I was working on a fairly large abstract painting and this figure kept popping up and inserting his figure in [the painting]. I thought, where’s this figure coming from and what does it have to do with this painting? All of a sudden it came to me like a bolt of lightning: This was me searching for my father. My father was appearing as a figure, as a spirit-like thing. I sat there in tears for about half an hour and finally I went home and told my wife about it. After making that discovery, it was OK for me to use that figure when it would show up.

It is as if we all have spirits that relate to us or float around in the world. We may or may not pay any attention to them, most of us don’t and that’s OK. (I don’t walk around seeing things).

ArtsATL: You also have traversed a number of mediums, including drawing, painting, collage and more recently, mixed media assemblages. When you work, do you fluidly change from medium to medium or do you tend to work within one for a particular series?

Walker: I tend to group things together. If I’m doing drawings I may do several in the same time frame. That may take a week or maybe two weeks. At the same time, I may have another series of paintings waiting for me to come back to them. And in some instances, there may be a similarity between what is happening in the drawings and what is happening in the painting.

ArtsATL: There seems to be a similarity between how you are physically and psychologically exploring the notion of duality. When you use figures, as in the Metamorphic series or the spirits and shadow works, you’re playing with the idea of multiple presences, making visible what people often feel but don’t show. And when you’re working physically on the surface of the work you’re also exploring the liminal spaces between what you see and what you know is hidden.

Gist Enigma, 2006 Charcoal, conté crayon, and acrylic on paper 14 x 13.25 inches, 35.6 x 33.7 cm. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.
Gist Enigma, 2006. Charcoal, Conté crayon, and acrylic on paper. 14 x 13.25 inches. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins Gallery.

Walker: I think that’s true. Now why that happens or how that happens, I’m not positive. Even when I was doing the Figurative series, which had a single figure in space, the figure was always rooted to the earth, they were bound, they could not escape the earth itself although they were reaching for something beyond that. Or the lithograph we discussed earlier with one shadow going one way and one going the other direction, [both figures] are still there in the same place.

ArtsATL: The Blindfold series and GIST series come from personal challenges that you have faced. Is tackling them as subjects for your work cathartic?

Walker: Absolutely. The Blindfold series came about after going to have my eyes checked and discovering I had glaucoma. The question that came out of it was, “Okay, I have glaucoma, what is the worst thing that could happen? I could go blind,” which was a little scary. That was over 20 years ago and I’m still seeing, which is good, but the series came about during that time when I was questioning whether this might or might not happen. In some of the series, there was a blindfold on the eyes and in some there was just no eyes.

The GIST series came about because of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor I had. I was feeling ill and I called the doctor. I described the symptoms I was having and he said, ”Go to the hospital. Do not pass go. Do not drive. Get somebody to take you.” So my wife took me over to Piedmont Hospital and while talking to the triage nurse, I passed out. They rushed me off and operated on me. I had a tumor in my stomach and it had burst. About a year after that, the series came about. It was only about four or five pieces but it had to do with unknown creatures that were invading the body. When you think back to that series and look at some of the works, they’re not totally unlike the Metamorphic series or the Cacti series.

ArtsATL: There seems to be a movement to reexamine the career of artists who defied traditional art market categorization. I’m thinking about artists like Jack Whitten, who is now being recognized for his pioneering investigations in abstract painting or Carmen Herrera, who is having her first show at the Whitney this fall at the age of 101. Do you feel with the recent show at Sikkema Jenkins, your receipt of the Nexus Award and your current show at Georgia State that you are poised for that kind of reappraisal?

Walker: I’m very pleased that this is happening, I think I’ve been ready for a larger stage for some time and I’m fortunate that some of this may be happening before I pass on rather than after. I had a piece that was in a curated exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem and I went to the reception and someone came by and said something like, “Did you ever in your entire life think that you would have your work in a place like this?” and I looked at him and I said, “I wonder why it took them so long to discover me [laughs].” There have been times when I have wanted more recognition and other times when I’ve said it really isn’t that critical. I just want to make work and leave it around for some people to see down the road.