Kelley Walker is no stranger to the perversities of advertising. One of his earlier subjects was the notorious 1995 Benetton ad that hawked its goods via a reproduction of an airline crash, another a 1974 Pioneer stereo ad featuring the master ad man, Andy Warhol. In two recent series using Volkswagen Beetle ads from 1950 to 1970, Walker exploits the brilliant graphics of a redemptive campaign, deepening his decade-long reflection on the implications of printed matter. More than sharp design and good engineering, it was brilliant advertising that allowed the Beetle to shed its Nazi-tainted past and become the friendly “people’s car” beloved of the entire earth.
At Paula Cooper, Walker installed on three walls a single untitled piece (2013) consisting of 196 MDF panels silkscreened with full- and double-page VW ads, flipped, rotated and folded. Occasional snippets of backward texts and curled-back pages clue us in to reversals. Of two sizes (16 or 24 inches square), and printed in both Pantone and CMYK printers’ colors, the panels are perforated with holes that toy with flatness and materiality while choreographing a playful visual dance across the entire installation. The “Bug” appears in a range of settings, in close-up or on snowy country roads and city streets, only to have its curved profile cut off by actual holes. The panels were installed irregularly, with larger and smaller gaps between; together, the gaps and holes echo the blank spaces that Walker has elsewhere built into his work as a (modernist) trope of resistance and negation. Pushing the ad further, he deployed the digital imaging program Rhino in a series of aluminum sculptures displayed on a tabletop (“Bug,” 2014). This time the ads are screened onto both sides—indistinguishable due to the torquing—of hole-perforated aluminum sheets, which twist and curl as paper might in a fire. Yet they remain silvery and cool, their conceptual tricks and paradoxes beguiling.
Still handsome but edging into pretentiousness was “Pioneer PL-518 Series (TVRY),” 2014. Interleaving images of vinyl records and their covers, Walker printed them onto 24-inch-square MVP panels that were then laid flat and raised slightly above 2-foot-tall pedestals. The records are reproduced to scale, and indeed the floating panels feel a little like turntables. From Kraftwerk to Little Richard and Edgard Varèse, the album choices are just too, too hip. You feel like you’ve landed at a party with a show—off dee-jay hogging the mix; Walker is nothing if not conscious of image.
At the other end of the scale—from rigorous control to engineered accident—a large group of rectangular, wall-hung works consisted of actual, superimposed screens of Walker’s many leftover projects stretched on aluminum or wood frames. Aptly, the series is titled “Screen to Screen 30×40,” since the ground itself is always a screen, its layered imagery an abstract muddle in which vignettes of Walker’s works float into visibility like the prognostications of a Magic 8 Ball—here a Beetle wheel, there a record. In this series one feels vividly the presence of Rauschenberg and Warhol—the former in the look of the work, and the latter quite literally, since among the image scraps is the Pioneer stereo ad. Is the series a catharsis of sorts? If so, Walker updates the timeworn practice of plate cancellation, spinning it into his ongoing meditation on image recycling and dissemination. Here, though, the recycling exhausts itself, and dissemination is stopped dead in its tracks.