i-N conversation with artist jake walker and curator melissa loughnan
The New Zealand artist and Australian curator converse on the nature of art fairs and their impact in 2015.
New Zealand artist Jake Walker's latest works are minimal paintings in ceramic frames, made at the approximate scale of a computer or laptop screen. Recently shown at Sydney Contemporary, the works were intended to make comment on the amount of art that is now viewed online, likening the experience of an art fair to the physical manifestation of online browsing. Previously, Jake has exhibited artist-made laptops, constructed of two canvas panels, and applied paint to actual laptops with moving image - all of which have been shown in an art fair context. These works consider the difference between viewing an art object in actuality, compared to its representation on screen; attempting to quietly reassert the importance of the physical art experience.
Melissa Loughnan, director of Utopian Slumps and Jake Walker's previous art dealer, caught up with Jake to talk about the impact of art fairs on the art world, the perpetual importance of the white cube, and to mull over the future of the traditional art fair model in the internet age.
Melissa Loughnan: You recently showed a new series of your ceramic framed paintings with Gallery 9 at Sydney Contemporary. Can you tell me what those works were about, and what the significance to you was of showing them in an art fair context?
Jake Walker: It occurred to me a few years back that the glut of images available online and in print was changing the way audiences engaged with 2D art. Essentially with more to consume there is less time to spend with a particular image. So around that time I started getting less interested in pictorial space and more interested in the sculptural possibilities of painting as object. I produced a few works where I painted onto working laptop computers, the screens were running video, I thought I might be able to trick people into looking at a painting a bit longer. I was also making a joke about how much art we view online these days.
The works at Sydney Contemporary were playing with similar ideas, the scale resembles a screen of some sort, yet you're definitely viewing something in actuality. I have always considered art fairs to be a physical manifestation of the online art world, borne of the searching habits we developed online. I wanted to make some still quiet works to give the punters' eyes a break.
Melissa: You've also exhibited with me through Utopian Slumps at two previous art fairs. At Auckland Art Fair in 2011 we showed one of your painted laptop works with moving image; and at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014 we showed a series of laptop paintings constructed of two painted canvas panels. Can you tell me more about your earlier laptop paintings, in particular, your interest in the lifespan of technology and its inherent obsolescence? And how has this interest evolved in your practice to where you are now?
Jake: I guess I was making fun of our collective love affair with technology, I was reducing a tool that enables us to see and hear the whole world on screen to an object that only presented one boring video and a bad painting. I also liked the idea that the computer would eventually die, removing the video from the equation. I was hoping that the piece might raise some questions around value and permanence.
The Hong Kong works were about viewing art online, about the incomplete experience. Everything the same size same surface. I found it amusing that a laptop's form could be approximated so simply, a form that 20 years ago would have meant nothing.
Melissa: So in a way, the works that you exhibited at Sydney Contemporary were an extension of those earlier works, this time reduced to screen-sized monochromes, largely devoid of any figuration, that provide an opportunity for the eye to rest in the art fair context. It's a clever tactic - rather than producing flashy works that attract your immediate attention, but might not hold it long term, your work gives the art fair punter an opportunity for quiet, gentle contemplation. It's the kind of work that you might give a brief amount of attention to in the beginning, but that you keep coming back to - it has the stuff of endurance.
What's interesting about this work, too, is that it both critiques and celebrates the model of the art fair. You liken the art fair to online browsing, and make light of this by referencing the computer screen in the size and ratio of your work, however you also rely on the physical person to see the work in order to fully experience its three dimensionality and surface value (the texture of the surface, the nuances of the glazing, etc), which cannot be afforded online, but can by experiencing your work at an art fair. And in this context, it is seen by many. Had your work been shown in a gallery to an audience in the hundreds, rather than at an art fair, to an audience in the tens of thousands, this commentary might not have been so resonant. Perhaps the art fair model has even more currency these days that the gallery model. What are your thoughts on this?
Jake: I don't think that fairs are as critically important as the gallery model, and you still need a bricks and mortar space to have a chance of showing at the first tier fairs, but they have become more commercially important, probably because consumers want choice and a fair is closer to the shopping experiences that they might be more familiar with.
I think there is a perception that if you walk into a dealer gallery you might wind up being asked awkward questions about art that you don't get, and unable to make it back out the door. In this sense social architecture plays a role in how fairs and booths are designed, if you have two entrances/exits you've got a better chance of getting people into the space. This is one of the reasons I liken art fairs to the Internet, you get to stroll through with a great degree of freedom and autonomy.
I think the fair model offers artists some new challenges and interesting possibilities for sure.
Text Melissa Loughnan
Photography courtesy Jake Walker