Clementine November 29, 2007 – January 5, 2008
Hugh Walton’s first solo show of his career melded bittersweet humor with personal disclosure in four new high definition videos (all works 2007). In the main gallery space, three of those pieces were shown on flatscreen monitors, mounted to the wall. In preparation for each, the artist froze liquids into single or paired words in blocky letters. Each word or phrase, doubling as the piece’s title, was fashioned from a different liquid: Tough Guy from spit; Totally Fucked from alphabet soup; Pissed from… yup, piss. After recording the words as they melted from solids to liquids, the artist played with running the videos forwards and backwards at increased speed, using slightly different approaches for each. In Totally Fucked, the track was played backwards, then reset itself to play again. Pissed presented its form’s complete reconstitution and then reversal to dissolution. Tough Guy eerily vacillated between the two. The tactic of running video backwards is familiar, but Walton manages to elicit strangely disorienting effects. His words expand and contract, assemble and disintegrate in a mesmerizing manner.
Walton plays with the tension between seduction and repulsion; again, a familiar strategy, but one that he employs well. His own bodily fluids in two of the works paradoxically appear less visceral than the alphabet soup, whose bright red tomato base marbled with white letters has the look of ground raw meat. Tough Guy is the only one of the three with audio, a subtle veil of sound distorted from being played backwards and sped up. The sun reflecting off of the spit-letters lying on a pebbly ground, combined with the wave-like sound, unexpectedly elicit the sensation of being on the beach. The immediate impression one had when viewing all three videos is that the artist was having fun, playing with visual and conceptual one-liner (one-worder?) jokes. One could not help but laugh at the pun inherent in urine forming the word “pissed,” the invocation of the clichéd “tough guy” with the gob of spit on the ground, or the unlikely triumph of “totally fucked” as it overcomes its own fatalistic message to reconstitute as a solid.
While viewing these three works, one could not ignore audio resonating from a side gallery: a steady, hypnotic percussion. In there was the fourth video and star of the show, a 9-minute projection piece entitled Kung Fu. In it, a clear piece of Plexiglas is positioned between the camera and the artist. Walton uses the ink-coated outer edge of his hand to imprint a single letter onto the Plexi with a striking blow. Some letters—such as a capital A—require more than one strike to be completed, but all are fashioned quickly and economically. Immediately, the tape cuts to the clean Plexi and Walton’s hand delivers the next letter. And the pattern continues—one letter per cut—in a rapid-fire sequence that produces the beating soundtrack. The letters form words, the words form sentences, with brief fades to white marking the pauses between them. This pulsating language flashes so quickly, it is tricky to follow the text being formed. Just when you think you are keeping up, you miss a letter and the entire context becomes slippery and frustrated. Walton duplicates each sentence three times, a necessary repetition for legibility. The five sentences that slowly unfurl narrate childhood struggles in school: “My parents told me I was left back because I was born in December.” “When I got to school they told me that I had learned the wrong way.” A picture emerges of a child with undiagnosed dyslexia, who, in his aggravation, resorted to acting out. As the short sentences continue, Walton’s confessional paints a poignant picture of anger and misapprehension. He bit and punched other children. He threw a kid down a flight of stairs. His confounded parents resorted to taking out a two million dollar insurance policy on him.
Kung Fu is a seamless blend of form and content. The use of the karate-chop evokes Walton’s use of his fists to problem-solve, as well as the type of martial arts movies that would have been popular when he was a boy. The viewer is made to experience firsthand the frustration of Walton’s childhood inability to fully comprehend what was being thrown at him too quickly to absorb. He manifests the use of repetition as a didactic tool. The performative nature of the video’s creation dovetails with the very idea of “acting out.” Walton’s presence is not limited to his hands; the camera’s focus is on the Plexi surface, but his slightly blurred face hovers just above throughout. A look of indomitable concentration is solidly fixed on his face as he remains focused on his task. It is as if the artist is hell-bent on fashioning a more suitable type of communication.
After emerging from this side gallery, the other videos in the show took on new meaning. Totally Fucked’s soupy mess of jumbled letters and its nihilistic message were clarified. The spit and piss of the other works evoked abject misbehavior borne of discontentment. Even the show’s title, with its asterisk in place of one letter, became a meditation on possible misreadings and miscommunications. Suddenly one read it as an unnecessary and stifling censure that failed to conceal the rage festering right below the surface.