January 31, 2008

Emotion trumps trendiness in Walker’s repertoire

Large, mysterious, emotive paintings will be on display at the Hyde Park Art Center in the new exhibit Through a Glass Darkly, a mid-career retrospective of Chuck Walker’s work. The show focuses on his figure paintings, but also includes some still-life paintings and many drawings.

Curator Margaret Hawkins oriented the retrospective around the themes that pervaded the many styles of Walker’s work. She described the main unifying theme as physical concealment, “a dislocation between body and spirit” and a “yearning for something outside of the physical realm.” Urban subject matter and cityscapes creep into the show as well, working almost as sub-themes.

Walker paints mostly with dark, rich colors, and in his work a viewer is more likely to encounter a back than a face. The faces he does paint are often expressionless but full of emotion. His figures do not seem conscious of being painted and, indeed, Walker works much more from his imagination than from life. He says he uses models only occasionally, when he feels he needs to “add more reality to the fantasy.” Often he does not know whom or what he is painting until he is well into the process. He describes his paintings as evolving as he paints them, with one form leading into another as he works.

While he is certainly a skilled painter, Walker is less concerned with the technical aspect of painting than with imagination and evoking a feeling. He explains that he asked specifically for Hawkins to curate the show because, like him, “she goes more for the spirit side” of art.

Particular highlights of this show will be “Stripper” and “The Girl Who Loved Lord Byron,” two paintings of women done in many browns, greens, and grays. Both women are otherworldly, but neither is ethereal. And they both seem, Mona Lisa–like, to be holding back some great or terrible secret.

Another one of the most memorable paintings is “Angola/Angola,” a painting inspired by a television program debating the United States’ response to the Angolan Civil War. While everyday life in Chicago inspires most of Walker’s pieces, much of the same theme comes through in this painting, which depicts a figure with covered eyes facing a firing squad. It seems that if you could reach into the painting and lift off the head-covering, you might be able to figure out a lot about the person wearing it. Of course you cannot, and that just-out-of-reach mysteriousness comes through in many of Walker’s paintings.

The drawings play on themes similar to those of the paintings. They are not in the show to inform the paintings or explain the artist’s process, but because they are beautiful pieces of art in their own right. The show includes drawings in many styles, even some styles that Walker does not paint in. Many of the drawings are more fantastical, referring less directly to everyday life than most of the paintings do.

Although Walker does not deal with Biblical or religious themes, a passage from Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” stuck out to Walker. The verse seemed related to his work in its focus on concealment, solitude, and grappling with the hope for transcending the physical realm. Therefore, the passage made an appropriate title for his show.

Walker has been on the Chicago arts scene for a long time, but his work has been out of public visibility for the past decade or so. Hawkins described his work as “one of a kind,” and Walker agrees that his work is not quite like most art being shown now. His own tastes in art run more toward the classical than the conceptual, and the differences between his work and art-world trends likely explains his recent absence from galleries and even public arts spaces like the Hyde Park Arts Center. “I cannot see how imagery and the human body are going to go away,” Walker said about bucking the trend.

“Once you see the work, you may not love it, but I think you’ll get it,” said Hawkins, perfectly explaining the effect Walker’s work cannot help but have in person.