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Richard T. Walker Disrupts the Notion of the Sublime at ASU Art Museum in Tempe

Upon entering Richard T. Walker's exhibition "the predicament of always (as we are)" at ASU Art Museum, the viewer is immersed in sound. Sound sculptures utilizing neon, keyboards, guitars, and rocks surround the space, and a two-channel video, from which the exhibition gets its name, is projected on the back wall. The artist, wearing a red t-shirt and dark jeans, is sitting in the White Sands National Monument in solitude, his back to us as he contemplates the scene and records himself talking on a cassette tape.

At times, the recording is muffled by wind and it becomes obvious that Walker's speech is not rehearsed. What he's saying is honest, personal, and raw. It's almost as if this tape was meant to be sent to someone close to the artist. While he is recording his thoughts, it's hard to not become immersed in your own. The viewer begins to embody this everyman role and becomes a part of the landscape. Even though the artist is alone during his journey through the desert, it's as if we are a part of it, too.

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Walker is a British artist who has exhibited internationally and currently lives and works in San Francisco. His work often comically addresses his personal matters in the landscape of the desert, a place that is incredibly detached from contemporary life. There's a sense of romanticism to Walker being this lone figure trekking through the desert and becoming a part of the landscape, but that romanticism is exactly what he is questioning.

As this 12-minute video piece continues, Walker arranges guitars, basses, keyboards, and even a xylophone within desolate but picturesque desert landscapes. He activates these instruments by throwing rocks at them. If we see him hit a string or a key, a sound is added to the soundscape -- if he misses, he simply tries again. Walker's way of embracing failure gives the work a very human quality. The notion of the sublime, as defined by classic aesthetic theory, is embodied only in nature. Walker's disruption of that unattainable concept proposes a new reading of the sublime, one that praises the messy uncertainty of being human.

Each clip has a distinctive sound produced in it and Walker arranges these layers of video and audio in such a way that simultaneously create a music and video composition, much like how a music producer would layer audio to make a song. Instead of being a solely auditory experience, this piece becomes a visual symphony.The whole experience is mesmerizing, but there are bits of humor here and there. As these serious instruments begin to coalesce in harmony, this colorfully adorable children's xylophone appears and lightens the entire composition.

Later on, as the piece seems to be reaching a calm conclusion with what could be stock footage of nature's beauty, drums appear on each video channel, rocking out back and forth. It's certainly the most rock-and-roll ending I've ever seen in an art piece. Walker is taking what some might regard as sublime - a stellar guitar or a sick drum solo - and positioning it in the context of antiquated notions of aesthetics.

Some of the sculptures seen in the exhibition begin to appear in the video, as well. At one point in the video, there are close-up shots of the artist's hand holding up tiny prints of mountaintops to the actual mountains in the scene. Like other moments in the video, he is simultaneously drawing and disrupting a connection and between the man-made and the natural, between himself and the vast landscape. It's kind of like a trompe l'oeil, making these picturesque mountains appear closer and more attainable than they physically are, but it's actually a somewhat jagged cutout of a mountaintop.

In the gallery, these makeshift mountaintops exist as three pristine lightbox photographs of small rocks mounted on tripods. This landscape is not an unattainable, idyllic thing - if you take a minute to look down there's probably a rock at your feet that was once a part of a mountain. Walker is presenting these as if they're altars, or rather an anti-altar. Instead of simply worshipping the picturesque, he is shifting the way that we see it. If ambient music has a lot to do with altering how we listen, then Walker's installation operates in a similar way, but with visuals added into the equation.

Another pair of sculptures, momentary together forever #1 and #2, are two guitars mounted on tripods facing one another near the center of the gallery, rigged with rocks to play a specific note. While these are intriguing sculptural arrangements in which the industrial lines of the guitar and tripod guide the viewer to small, intimate photographs of a hand holding two rocks, I have trouble feeling the same kind of magic that exists in the other works. Throughout this exhibition there's a push and pull between the sublime nature of landscape and the man-made - those basic elements are there - but I find myself not feeling that sense of awe that the sublime promises.

in defiance of being here #5, #6, and #7 have that magic. The neon tubes protruding from the keyboards forming mountains command attention in the dim gallery. Arranged on the ground along the wall, I felt as if I should kneel down when viewing them. The keyboard itself is an inviting instrument, and the way Walker frames it with neon makes it even more welcoming. It lays silently with its keys ready to be played, but the artist's rocks are already playing it. Like the lightbox pieces, these feel like anti-altars to me. If you were to kneel down before the piece and look up, the neon mountain is right in front of you, barely out of reach. As with other pieces, the sublime becomes something tangible.

Throughout the video in the exhibition, we see Walker's state of being in transition. He is alone, pacing around and then sitting before the scene and contemplating. In what seems like a moment of letting go, he throws his cassette recorder over the horizon and the video becomes an ecstatic spectacle. But, the spectacle isn't about the unequivocal beauty of nature, it's about the raw stuff of being human.

Richard T. Walker's "the predicament of always (as we are)" is on view in ASU Art Museum's Lower Level South Gallery until January 3, 2015. For more information, visit ASU Art Museum's website.

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