It feels like a lifetime ago that I attended an opening reception at The Alice Wilds for Shane Walsh’s show, “Combinated,” on March 6. We were different people then–I was still hugging casual acquaintances and looking people in the eye. I had a conversation with friends that evening about my plans to leave for a place called Spain that might as well be one of Jupiter’s moons right now. Public spaces themselves have a lunar strangeness. But for all the trauma and soul searching over the past three months it’s more than a little reassuring to revisit an exhibition that’s waited Penelope-like for a viewing public who’ve been through a long unexpected Odyssey.
After an initial (and welcome) wallop to the senses, Walsh’s paintings eventually begin to function as they were meant to when they were painted, before life took a surreal whiplash U-turn. That superficially raucous extroversion eventually yields to compositional control and process-oriented savvy. “Untitled,” a warm-colored 48 x 37-inch painting on the near wall of the gallery is as good an example as any, though they all fit the bill to varying degrees.
The work builds off a background with nickel-size puffs of maroon paint supporting a stack of brushy pink and magenta swathes, which themselves stage brushstrokes of darker warm colors. The lower right of the canvas bears a thatch of violet gestures pinned by a sweeping boomerang of directional yellow ground that encloses a laboratory-quality specimen of gestural brushwork in earthy red. One wonders how natural and how improvisatory that stroke of perfection was for few seconds before the whole subsumes the visual parts.
Looking at Walsh’s show again after three months had me channeling references to cinema. No doubt because I’ve been watching movies like it was my 9 to 5. Works like the “Untitled” piece on the East wall build like features from so many set pieces. This one is constructed in layers of dark, transparent blues under shards and scallops of luminescent green, occasionally adding contrast with interruptions of violet and magenta. It feels backlit like a projected film, and scripted for sure, but not contrived. Someone I know described this painting as having “tropical aquarium,” vibe, which I immediately wished I could have claimed. The description is spot-on chromatically, and also suggests the submerged, self-enclosed space Walsh’s painting operates inside, appropriating various expressive elements and reassembling them into single other worldly ecosystems, somehow answering the question “natural or unnatural?” with “yes.”
Trying to capture both ends of any qualitative spectrum is the Triple Lindy of visual creation, but when successful, it can be Kubrick, Foreman, Malick, or Tarrantino. And when not, it be the same four. One can go small or large, but it’s tough to do both at once. Walsh’s work dances nimbly across a number of such sprecta: formal/informal; organic/synthetic; abstract/concrete; loose/tight, and macro/micro. Not every one of his maximalist abstractions-masquerading-as-a-collages is a seamless masterpiece, but within the entire show of nine paintings, there are multiple exulted moments. And right now especially, it’s more satisfying to watch someone try to juggle four chainsaws than one rubber ball.
“Combinated” is an emphatic exhibition that provides an emphatic impact, but one built carefully from fine details and subtleties that justify the visceral payoff…so you needn’t feel too indulgent. After all is said, Walsh’s work might be seen best as an abstract reflection of society itself, full of complexities and contradictions that can be exhausting, but that are required to justify having a pulse. If you can’t engage random individuals like you had only a few months ago, you may as well see art that’s as fragmented, colorful, frustrating, complex, and exhilarating as a world full of people you have come to miss.
Through June 6 at the Alice Wilds, 900 S. 5th Street.
Image: Shane Walsh, "Untitled (0620)", 2020 Acrylic and oil on canvas, 37" x 27".