Try to remember the feeling of someone smiling at you with their mouth and not their eyes, making a demand phrased as a question, positive tone and upward inflection towards the end of the sentence – the sense that social graces are preventing legitimate communication, mutating into a constructed language of politeness and delicacy masking contempt, or maybe just confusion.
Ben Walker’s paintings inhabit a world in which this experience rings constant, conjuring dreamlike spaces in which subjects find themselves appearing all at once, acting without will if not outright against it. Their beauty rolling in as an increasingly dense fog enveloping the viewer along with it, lingering in front of the roughhewn linen surface as the landscape of the painting reveals itself and disappears again.
The figures move throughout the work in varying levels of clarity, sometimes solid and tangible, appearing to the viewer at the very surface of the painting in direct communication– other times, they float beneath the line, disengaged from the room in which the work sits, disinterested in the viewer. These ghostly forms are concerned with their own turmoils, actions taken in endless repetition within the confines of the painting– the gray lady appearing at the top of the stairs, only to disappear after a few steps.
The haunted canvases take inspiration from mid-twentieth century British television, an era with a distinct aesthetic and tone that appears more and more uncanny the further time moves from it. The stiffness of presentation sits in contrast to the oft-lampooned informational videos presented in American pop-culture (significantly more Straw Dogs than Troy McClure), leaving the viewer with the impression that the protagonist is only talking long enough to keep them distracted while some unseen horrors transpire. It’s one part supernatural entity and one part bureaucratic nightmare, the inhumanity of the gentry rendered in technicolor, their palpable fear that someone might notice that they aren’t quite telling the truth.
The surface of the works tell as much of a temporal story as the subjects, with pigment scrubbed into the fibers of coarse linen, lifted almost to the point of dissipation by heavy use of turpentine. The layers build without becoming heavy, creating depth through color soaking and clinging onto the surface. The process allows for the paint to move around the surface, unfixed and working in collaboration with the artist to produce hazy scenes characterized by their state of flux.
The layers of pigment build surreal dreamscapes, rejecting definition in favor of fluctuating densities of color and shadow. Rather than depicting depth of field, these techniques seem to obfuscate or highlight details within the context of the composition and twisting narrative held in it. The subjects bend away from the viewer, folding in on themselves in penitent contortions of form. In Life Without God, they are almost swallowed by the waves of color, caught in their last moments of form before fading away completely, unable to ever reach a resolution. The sensation of unresolved conflict hangs heavy over much of this recent body of work, unfinished business or unheard sentences haunting the compositions.
With this latest body of work, Walker conjures residual hauntings throughout the gallery– the paintings almost seeming to move with the viewer as they explore the recurring dreams the figures inhabit.
These works are lamentations– for lost time, experience, aesthetics morphed beyond comprehension and locked in an increasingly inaccessible past– shifting out of focus and losing a little bit more detail each time they return, the sharpness of the memory shifting over time into a feeling of which the paintings act as a byproduct of the artist’s habitation. These nostalgic eulogies accept the hazy atmosphere blowing in with the winds of time, welcoming the fraying of the edges of reality and memory as an inevitability that actually has very little to do with our emotional, tonal and intuitive comprehension of our own memories as they fit within the fabric of contemporary life. Far beyond simply conjuring ghosts of our past, this latest body of work speaks to the phenomenological experience of nostalgia as a device for positioning ourselves within the world, building microcosmic realities in the surfaces of the work, with their own circumstances playing out in allegorical narratives scrubbed in hazy pigment.