The New Yorker’s Hilton Als challenges definitions of folk art and art brut in an exhibition of works by Antiguan artist and polymath Frank Walter
There is something about landscape painting that lends itself to colonial kitsch. Our systems of control are so tied to land ownership that even the crudest representations of nature are stitched together with a rentier mentality. In Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of 1818, Wanderer above the sea of fog, the male perspective dominates the misty mountain scene. 19e the landscapers of the century probed the wilderness and planted their flags in the most difficult terrain: surroundings soon to be strip-mined, bulldozed or turned into commercial tourist destinations. So much for the sublime Romantic…
In the vast majority of Western landscape paintings, the viewer looks at nature as an object to be consumed. Yet there is another type of landscape that has traveled alongside this dominant strain. The one in which you look at nature but nature also looks at you.
In 2017, Hilton Als, theater critic for the new yorkervisited the Caribbean flag at the Venice Biennale, and saw works by the Antiguan artist for the first time, Frank Walter. The exhibit was in a basement. It was hot and the only worker in the gallery was Barbara Paca, an art historian who discovered Walter in Antigua, and author of the only extant book on the artist. Als found Walter’s work immediately arresting.
“He didn’t impose the human form on the landscape,” Als told Observer. “He was trying to find a way to not only show us what he had seen, but also, he was very interested in how the human, how does the vision or the visionary equal the landscape?”
Als, whose family is from Barbados, was immediately struck by Walter’s multiplicity of vision. “I left the exhibit both spiritually and visually,” he told Observer. During the opening of the exhibition, Als spoke about the lack of sentimentality and softness in Walter’s landscapes. Walter, he says, wants nature to be part of us.
After the Biennale, Als met English gallery dealer David Zwirner and told him and everyone he knew about what he had seen in the West Indian pavilion. This experience led to the Frank Walter exhibition currently on view at by David Zwirner uptown gallery in New York, curated by Als.
The selections of Walter’s works chosen for this exhibition are primarily landscapes, often with huge, overwhelming skies and soft colors. Forest and rock formations are pressed claustrophobically against the foreground, obscuring watery horizons from view. In a work, untitled but known as View of the sea through the trees, menacing foliage bends over a creek coming from the sea.
Walter’s landscapes are menacing, strange and offbeat. It is nature seen from the point of view of a bird or an insect or a person who has gone astray. Walter, who received no recognition for his work during his lifetime and who died in 2009, is usually shown among foreign artists when exhibited. Walter was solitary and lived in his own world. Like outsider artist Henry Darger, the hospital janitor whose 15,000-page novel, The story of the Vivian Girls, is filled with stunning watercolors of children being tortured and rescued in an epic fantasy – Walter also struggled with mental health and was institutionalized. He had hallucinations throughout his life. Walter’s literary work, a autobiographyhas 8,000 pages (hand-typed).
However, unlike Darger, Walter was highly educated and had some success in a professional career. He was the first black man to work as a director of the Antiguan Sugar Syndicate. He lived and traveled extensively in Europe. He cultivated farmland and ran for political office. Where Darger was an orphan, Walter had a loving family.
Als rejects Walter’s classification as an outsider or folk artist. “I wanted people to see his work as a painter as the work of a painter, not as this strange figure who lived in isolation,” Als told Observer. He edited the exhibition at Zwirner to speak only of Walter’s painting and visual life. It dismisses the autobiography and puts Walter’s hand as an artist in the foreground.
Als’ desire for the art world to see Walter as a great artist by bypassing his background and mental health issues is understandable. Walter being as great an artist as he was, being as educated and cultured as he was, and being a black man from Antigua raises questions about art brut and why there is an interior and an exterior to begin with.
One of the most striking works currently on display at Zwirner is Right side of the milky way (artist’s title) – a surreal cosmic landscape in the shape of a horseshoe depicting the Milky Way rising from the sun. Painted on a gnawed wooden slab, its contours recall the old Anglo-Saxon ironwork. Having this work exhibited at Zwirner’s posh gallery is gratifying and at the same time a little sad. In the harsh glare of the gallery lights, on the blindingly white walls, Walter’s shiny little works are literally hard to see.
That an artist like Walter has to be stripped of his autobiography to be taken seriously by the art world is heartbreaking. This notion also seems to me to come from the standards of another era. It bears the stamp of formalism in the middle of the century: when art was encouraged to abstract itself from context, to remove itself from world affairs and political movements. This is clearly not Als’ intention here. Still, I couldn’t help but think as I walked through the gallery, how much more impact these works would have if shown alongside the fullness of who Walter was. Walter as a landscaper refused to show bare nature on an examination table. Not for him the clean panoramic beach landscape. Rather, nature was a thing of many conflicting and contradictory patterns. Perhaps in future exhibitions, curators can reflect this richness in the way his work is presented.