Jake Walker wrestles large buildings. He grapples with their edges, squeezing them into his paintings and anchoring them there with ceramic frames. Michelle Duff talks to him about his struggle.
Walker thinks architecturally; as far back as he can remember, he always has. The same form and structure that is important to his father, architect Roger Walker, can be found in miniature in Walker’s work. Curves, turrets, struts and columns are contained in his three-dimensional paintings, but only just. You get the feeling that if you looked away, a balustrade might just bounce right out and erect itself next to you on the floor.
A student of the the Otago School of Fine Arts, Walker travelled through Europe before making his name as an artist in Sydney and then Melbourne, where he was represented by the then Gallery 9 and Utopian Slumps in each city respectively. A self-described 'folk modernist,' Walker’s works are purposely handmade; his textural, abstract pieces in ceramic frames give the middle finger to everything that is homogenised and slick about contemporary art. Utopian Slumps may have put it best: 'Jake Walker is a New Zealand artist who works across painting, sculpture and installation, inverting cultural expectations and artistic conventions through his practice.'
'The folk modernism thing is funny,' Walker says from Melbourne, where he has a new show opening at Station Gallery. 'Everything that has ever been written about me since I made that comment eight years ago has mentioned it. What I meant was, when Modernism was first around it was very highbrow art world, but now everyone is having a crack at it. Like VWs were the people’s car, my idea was it was time for modernism to belong to the people.'
Now that his own works are hanging on gallery walls, Walker admits it never quite worked out the way he’d hoped. 'I have to accept that’s the framework that artists have to make a living. I would love if everyone wanted a painting and I could sell them for $100, but they don’t. They want screens and laptops.'
Walker has a growing following in Australia and New Zealand. He had a solo exhibition, The Town Belt, in Wellington City Gallery’s Hirschfield Gallery in 2014. He’s also shown at Hong Kong’s Art Basel and will later this year hold a show in New York, and a solo show at Bowerbank-Ninow in Auckland in August. 'This year is a culmination of four years of working on the same idea, getting more technically proficient at the ceramic frames and painting every day. It’s been good for me to have to work a bit faster I think, without as much time to deliberate. Fatherhood has been good for that too. I’m making more work now with half as many hours, less chin-scratching and more getting on with it.'
So where is he living now? Featherston, population 2,360, in South Wairarapa. 'My mum has a house in Featherston so that was part of the reason, also cheap real estate – traditionally artists have sought places where they can afford to make work without being forced out by gentrification. It’s a 1950s state on an 800-metre block. We’ve converted the garage into a studio. It wasn’t the explicit reason we went there to have a family, but it did eventuate.' Both Walker and his partner look after their daughter, Sadie, 20 months.
Born and raised in Wellington, Walker grew up surrounded by Post-modernist architecture – in their house and that of his dad’s mate, pre-eminent New Zealand architect Ian Athfield. The two men led a resurgence of architecture in the capital and beyond, with Athfield’s whitewashed, futuristic buildings ushering in a period of architecture that was more humane in feel and less rigid in structure. (As proof of Walker’s predisposition towards architects, his partner Genevieve is also one.) That upbringing in higgledy-piggledy surburban Wellington has had a huge influence on Walker’s work.
'Dad taught me design and architecture was important because he really believed that, and everything your parents think is important they will pass on to you. Sadie thinks paintings are a big deal because I do. As she grows up she can make her own mind up, but it is flattering when you have a child who is interested in abstract painting. She also likes the garden because I’m really into native plants,' Walker says. 'She started drawing but she’s more like a performance artist when you give her paint, she’ll just paint her feet. I don’t really want to encourage her to become an artist, it’s a difficult life.'
Walker’s work is in large a response to an increasingly globalised world, where images are expendable. Not only do flat, pixelated images somehow seem worth less – we scroll past hundreds a day on websites – but Walker says the nature of the internet means that the art world itself has become more homogenised. In the past Walker has painted directly onto laptops, or made sculptures that resemble them, to directly reference the influence of the computer screen on the way images are viewed. 'I started noticing that older people were taking a lot longer to look at paintings, and I think each generation has learned to consume images more quickly, just because of the sheer volume of publishing available through the internet. Two-dimensional painting also fell victim to that. But sculpture can be viewed from different angles and it’s in your space, so it requires a different response from the viewer. So my work started sliding into sculpture.'
The use of ceramics in his work began by accident, he says. 'A friend was working for a famous painter who threw away vast amounts of oil paint, so she gave it to me and just having more material around gave me more chance to use it. At the same time I was doing a ceramics course and the sculptural possibilities of clay were at my fingertips. In the beginning I thought I’d just make a nice salad bowl but that grew pretty boring. There is so much around that feels brand new, but rustic ceramics feel like they could be ancient immediately.'
One of the first sculptural forms he made from clay was an Ian Athfield tower. 'They always look like pottery anyway, those forms, he was a potter and his house sort of looked like brick kilns. The floors were usually terracotta brick tiles. I painted pictures of his work and there would be elements of it in the painting, and then when my painting became more and more reductive and minimal and went more towards pure abstraction, then that poetic element of architecture got pushed more towards the edge of the painting and became the frame. I wanted to make works that were less like a picture of the architecture and just felt like the architecture.'
Within the clay frames he likes to experiment with various types of painting, but he loves the way the frames transform the whole. 'There is a slightly hallucinogenic quality to them because they’re organic, rather than the linear quality of a black frame, so they make the paint sort of move around as well and you think it might morph into something else. Prior to making clay frames I had started getting my work framed really nicely in Melbourne, and that’s when it started to sell. Works that wouldn’t sell all of a sudden would, with this nice, clean frame. It made me think about the history of framing and how strange it is we keep these paintings inside a large piece of wood. It often feels anachronistic.'
Walker remembers visiting a Picasso show in Auckland, and thinking how at odds the frames seemed to be with the work. 'A lot had these big, garish, gold-leaf coated ornate frames around this fresh paint. The framing hadn’t quite caught up. It was almost like two periods of history co-existing, which was strange but at the same time a perfect marriage, like in a city where you have two buildings next to each other from a different era. I think the thing with the really ornate frames was that this image is precious or valuable enough to frame.'
Walker’s show in New York is at the Dutton Gallery on the Lower East Side. 'I’ll be showing ceramic-framed paintings, probably less minimal than some of the stuff I’ve been doing recently, more painterly. I have a very studio-based practice which I don’t think is very cool nowadays. I put paint down on something at least six days a week.'
Working this way means there’s always a part of a painting that doesn’t feel like it’s finished, Walker says. 'It can take years to realise some of the paintings I make. Sometimes after a couple of years I just paint them black. It’s not that I set out to make a black painting – sometimes I do, but sometimes they’ll end up there after all the avenues I’ve tried out and they are more interesting, with all the skeletons of other paintings.'
So your work’s never done? 'They’re finished if they’re in someone else’s collection or house, then they’re done. If they’re in my studio they’re still at risk.'
First published ArtZone #64