Mr. Universe

The gallery space feels womb-like--dark, humid, warm. Actual mist floats though the air. An old film whirrs on a tiny antique projector, little strobe lights throw images toward an old stuffed chair. Smoke and mirrors, if you will, where the claustrophobic meets the soothing in the strange and ominous microcosm Johnny Walker has created inside Gray Matters on Haskell. It's science fiction for the art set, and it's quite lovely and creepy and maybe even spiritual--but then that's a personal call, isn't it?

Walker, a young, ambitious artist, lives in Austin these days, although he worked in Dallas before migrating south. His current one-man show at Gray Matters, Johnny Walker: Remembering Moses, continues his obsessions on the organic: the fluidity of light and the transparency of fluid, the vascular system of Mother Nature herself; the way life cycles generate intangible emotional impact on humans, namely memory; and crucially, the way humans relate and respond to all of this. But he doesn't force an ounce of it down our throats; instead he mesmerizes us with his subtlety (which is in short supply these days amid all the so-called "transgressive" art). Artwork is only as intuitive as the artist--you either got it or you don't--and Walker's got it.

The darkness of the gallery is key; if these works suffered exposure to bright, flat light, they would lose much of their impact, if not their actual form. Of the 23 works, 17 hang on the walls like traditionally framed pictures. In a way, these depict Walker as Universal Framer, not artist, because pressed between the glossy glass panels are real leaves--perfectly flat and splayed out in orderly, layered patterns and well-behaved lines--and behind each panel a gentle, sourceless light emerges and flows. Some of these lite-brite portraits are sizable, four feet across, with ultra-heavy frames that Walker has carved out in echoing admiration of the pictures they contain. The frames are works of art in themselves--spoked, jutting, jointed, stern--looking like biomechanical containers, a kinder H. R. Gieger enshrining a secret collection of Earth plants. The leaves' dense striations, veins, and cracks, rendered translucent over the light, glow with natural color: golds, browns, grays, greens. It's like autumn captured eternally, but not so fast. The tissue-thin shapes, in all their complex and delicate texture, threaten to decompose before your very eyes. If you look really close, you can see the rot. Nothing is permanent, Walker seems to be saying, and that includes us.

Adjacent to these works sits the primary installation piece, "Mnemonic Device-Possum Kingdom," which takes the organic element to another level of consciousness. Spanning most of one side of the main gallery space, it's a long setup starting with a wee old movie projector clicking off a roll of 8-millimeter film, the image shooting toward a worn green-velvet chair on the other side of the room. Lined up between the two objects are six humidifiers the size of bread boxes, spewing out cool clouds of steam through the light from the projector. Walking around the whole, you see an absurdist assemblage of objects: the newfangled plastic steamers, the old projector with its reed-thin film, and the comfy chair make up a strange reality--like a "get well soon" obstacle course for an obsessive-compulsive person nursing a nasty cold.

But sit in the chair. Look straight toward the projector. Through the layers of mist forms the moving, jerking, color scenes of people playing outdoors--a family or some other group outing--youthful, faded, dated. They undulate in the smoke, but often they're wonderfully translucent. Laughing humans, green grass, blue sky made up of air-borne liquid. The image is so universal and innocuous that it could be from anyone's dream or anyone's memory. Just as a scene unfolds and condenses enough to grasp, it wavers and blows away in the rising micro-drops. In the end, it's melancholic to sit alone in that chair in the dark and watch people's lives speed along only to evaporate.

The innermost room of the gallery sits behind a heavy curtain. Push it aside, and the inner darkness splits rhythmically by a small flashing strobe and the noise of splashing water. On the floor stands a waist-high heavy box lined with cone-shaped black rubber, like a giant speaker laying on its back and moaning upward. Up from its center point spurts a thin stream of water, a perky ejaculation running straight into a massive steel drum suspended by thick wires from above. The hollow drum's interior is fitted with the strobe, so that as the water flies up, hits the inside of the drum, and trickles down its inside wall to fall into the rubber cone, the flashing light illuminates the water, separating it into thousands of vibrating, jumping drops--like a stop-action nature film. The droplets, perfect silvery bubbles, gather, quiver, rise and fall with a density that looks more like mercury or liquid platinum than anything we draw from the tap at the kitchen sink. It's otherworldly.

The man-made rubber and steel objects direct the water, but the water's natural behavior, in all its overlooked glory, gets the spotlight. If you're in the room, you have to watch it. But spend too much time with it, and the effect starts fraying your nerves--the close darkness, the frenetic flashing of grayish light, the splattery repetition of water, the crude rubber and metal all come off like a mad scientist's freakish project. Stick around too long, and you may not escape. Ironically, it's called "Wishing Well."

Walker has occupied himself with the temporal throughout his career. One of his earlier shows, staged in a warehouse, consisted of a smattering of dusty old radios hung by their cords from the high ceiling, plugged in and tuned to whatever faint frequency they could pick up in their weak and compromised conditions. Walking through the room, a whispering buzz could be heard, as well as the chatter of unfamiliar broadcasts that came off more like nostalgia trips rather than the here-and-now.

In an outdoor installation, Walker strung white sheets from a long pattern of clotheslines to form a giant maze, which was broken up, reshaped, and mutated with every breeze. A third installation placed a dozen or so slender, waist-high columns equidistant from each other and topped by a palm-sized square platform. On each platform wriggled a tiny live mouse, which constantly peered over the edge of its boundaries but never jumped off--mice have little depth perception and won't test unknown distances. So the mice perched and waited and cringed--until Walker liberated them.

In these, Walker has toyed with notions both intangible and fact-based: sound waves, air currents, animal instinct. His ability to manipulate them while respecting their ephemeral quality is what drives his work; he recreates basic-though-miraculous laws of nature. His Gray Matters show is a continuation of this. We know why water acts as it does, though we can't predict its molecular movement; we can contain flora, but we can't stop its natural course; we can project the past, but we can't bottle our emotional response to it.

Walker's pieces--on the wall, on the floor, hanging from the ceiling, floating through the air--suggest that our efforts at control are futile, yet a serenity emanates from his work nonetheless, flowing as much from their beauty as from what they imply. Artist, science hound, or law-of-nature man, Walker has a way with universal truth.

Johnny Walker: Remembering Moses. Through May 16 at Gray Matters, 113 N. Haskell, Dallas. (214) 824-7108. Hours: 12-5 p.m. Saturday, and appointments welcome.

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Christina Rees

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