Jay Walker’s sartorial-themed paintings, drawings and sculpture at James Oliver Gallery do not make for a cheery show although what’s on view is worth a visit. The life-sized depictions of clothing in stark relief against voids of space are brooding and iconic. In shades of black, white and grey, the hoodies, Matrix-like dusters, a hospital gown and a bride’s dress embody a sense of isolation and vulnerability. The hooded jackets in particular call to mind the shrouded Medieval tomb sculptures, The Mourners, shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last winter.
Walker, 28, and a graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (MFA, 2006), is an accomplished artist who could have painted clothing with flourishes like the old masters who luxuriated in their depictions of rippling cloth. Yet, Walker’s drapery is not about the cloth or even the idea of comfort or beauty. The show is about the human spirit.
I’ve seen Walker’s works before — he sometimes works with tape instead of paint (there’s one tape piece in this show) — but no matter the material, the depictions of disembodied clothing suggest the void. Why so mournful? “I’m hopeful and pessimistic,” the artist told me when I asked him about it at the gallery.
Walker is a Texas native who grew up near the Mexican border. I wondered if his experience of Mexican retablos and Day of the Dead imagery influenced his dark, ghostly and somewhat religious view. He said not. Then in the next breath he said he’s more comfortable eating Mexican food than American food. And a show he saw of Chicano art from Cheech Marin’s collection was an early influence.
Three years ago, Walker left the security of a full time teaching job to work flat out in the studio. At about the same time he needed hospital care (he’s fine now, he says). That encounter with mortality coupled with his own leap into the studio (the artistic void) might explain the dark aesthetic.
Many of the newer works in the show, like the oil painting “David Tripp II,” surround the object portrayed — in this case a duster coat — with thick white atmospheric paint suggesting a kind of saintliness or ascendence. For all its hulking threat, the duster is like a religious icon.
Walker told me he is influenced by the California painter Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud’s cake, pie and gumball paintings are icons of American consumer culture that are all about sensuality and play at the same time that they deliver a critique. “Thiebaud’s Jacket,” an homage to the Pop master, is a modest-sized work on paper made with layers of different colored tapes. The piece is one of the best in Walker’s show. The black hooded jacket, shown with hood up as if there’s a spook hiding inside, is uneasy-making. Yet there’s play and sensuality here, too. The red, yellow, blue, black and white tapes are layered and sometimes twist and crinkle, adding unexpected textures. Walker, who told me he loves tape and has 60 different varieties, enters a different zone when he uses the sticky consumer product. And the work becomes a fresh take on his subject.
The show is an exploration of one theme. I look forward to further developments, especially when they involve tape.
Jay Walker: Second Skin
Through Dec. 4. James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut St., 4th floor. 215.923.1242. jamesolivergallery.com