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Kelley Walker (b. 1969)
Black Star Press
signed with the artist's initial and dated 'K 2007' (on the reverse)
four-colour process silkscreen on canvas
104 x 83in. (264.2 x 210.6cm.)
Executed in 2007
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007.
Grenoble, Centre National d'Art Contemporain, KELLEY WALKER at Le MAGASIN, 2007-2008, p. 157 (installation views illustrated in colour, pp. 51 and 55). This exhibition later travelled to Brussels, WIELS - Centre d'art contemporain.

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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

‘Perhaps no artist deals so strategically and systematically with pop culture as Kelley Walker’
–Christopher Bollen

‘The Black Star Press series raises fundamental questions regarding how the strata of historical moments collide, how images, as well as people, circulate through culture, become commodified into economies, and are subsequently sold, bought, and put on display’
–Jeffrey Uslip

Executed in 2007, Black Star Press is an arresting work from Kelley Walker’s most iconic and provocative series, a triptych variation of which is held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Silkscreened across the monumental canvas, which stretches over 2.5 metres in height, is an inverted photograph of the 1963 Civil Rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Walker has flipped the image horizontally, turned it upside down, and plunged it into shocking vermillion hue. Spattered across the surface – and partly obscuring the image, which shows the student Walter Gadsden being attacked by a policeman and his dog – are silkscreened pools and splashes of white, dark and milk chocolate. In his hair-raising treatment of such charged material, Walker confronts thorny questions of appropriation, representation and art-world sensationalism. The Black Star Press series works in direct dialogue with Andy Warhol’s infamous 1963-64 Race Riot silkscreens. For these, Warhol used similar images of an attacked Birmingham protestor taken by photographer Charles Moore, which had sparked national uproar when they were published as part of a photo story in Life magazine; Walker’s Black Star Press title is in fact taken from the agency that paid Moore a retainer to shoot the events in his native Alabama. Walker’s image, however, was taken by another photographer, Bill Hudson, and published in a separate story in the New York Times. These discrepancies draw attention to Walker’s complex critical engagement with the mechanics of the appropriative act, and beg closer examination of the image itself. Why, for example, did Warhol title his series Race Riot, when the event recorded was in fact a peaceful protest set upon by police with dogs and firehoses? As Walker observes, ‘Warhol appropriated the protest image and named it riot, which is precisely what [Martin Luther] King didn’t want his cause to be associated with. But that was the very thing that made it sexy to the art world. So I played between the two associations’ (K. Walker quoted in C. Bollen, ‘Kelley Walker’, Interview, April 2010). It is in this fraught, shifting interchange between creation, alteration and reception that Walker works, ultimately making a profound inquiry into how an image relates to society and history at large.

Over half a century has elapsed between the making of Warhol’s work, which was referencing current events, and Walker’s. Warhol claimed that the photos he used just ‘caught my eye’ (A. Warhol quoted in D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 154). With typical evasiveness, he asserted that an image’s only value was in its aesthetic surface. But in our age of endlessly appropriated, remixed and recycled visuals, do images ever truly become empty of their original import? If so, when, and how? By naming his own work Black Star Press, Walker highlights a chain of verbal associations to explore how meanings can shift and be obscured over time. Black Star Press, the agency that employed Charles Moore to take the photograph that Warhol used, was founded in 1935 by German refugees. Black Star Press was also later the name of the publishing arm of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, launched in 1969 and itself named in tribute to the Black Star Line, a shipping enterprise created by Marcus Garvey in 1919 as part of his mission to link African-Americans with Africa. The phrase ‘Black Star’, in the context of Walker’s work, might also be read with a new, dark irony: here is a black victim of police violence made famous by an iconic photograph. Even the screenprint’s vivid red colour summons manifold registers of meaning. The red might refer to the suspicion of 1960s segregationists that the Civil Rights movement was a Communist plot, or it could simply serve to echo the Coca- Cola ad visible in the photo’s background, which carries the distinctly American and capitalist overtones of Warhol’s Pop art. By spattering his image in chocolate, Walker muddies the waters yet further. While the first works of the series are vandalised with real chocolate, here the material has been scanned and silkscreened, levelling stain and documentary photo onto the same flat, repeatable plane. Walker challenges us to dismantle the layers of the work’s making, and dares us to think that its content no longer matters.

Black Star Press is a viscerally powerful and destabilising work. Loaded with Walker’s editing and alterations, it quivers in unnerving aesthetic and semantic ambiguity. Walker, who himself hails from the deep South, offers no easy answers to the controversial questions he raises. Instead, he lays bare the rich, difficult and tangled fabric of American life and visual culture in a layered image that is at once confrontational, subtle and radically honest. As the artist Glenn Ligon has argued, ‘if Walker’s interventions create a distance between the race riot photograph and us, they also bring us closer to the image, in part because of the nagging worry that the images are not his to use. Race riots are race riots – and not just Warhols – in Walker’s work because our anxiety about his whiteness and his chocolaty transgressions reveals that we are not “beyond” race; we have just begun to address it. This ultimately points to our failure to realise the “post-racial” society that the men and women in those images were marching to achieve’ (G. Ligon, ‘Kelley Walker’s Negro Problem’, Parkett, no. 87, 2010, p. 80).

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