'I was working in the gap where Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted communism... and Warhol appropriated the protest image and named it riot, which is precisely what 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, ibid.).
'Perhaps no artist deals so strategically and systematically with pop culture as Kelley Walker. The 39-year-old artist is something of a post-pop wizard, using a copy, cut, and reprint technique that often involves an Epson ink jet printer and screen-printing. The result is a series of loaded pop images-somehow violent, hilarious, spontaneous, and overdetermined all at once. Most famously, Walker has screen-printed paintings based on photos similar to those used by Andy Warhol in his Race Riot works, smearing the images with chocolate' (Kelley Walker, quoted in C. Bollen, Kelley Walker, Interview, April 2010, reproduced at www.interviewmagazine.com).
Expanding across the viewer's horizon and occupying their entire field of vision, Kelley Walker's triptych Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise); Black Star, Black Press, Star Press is the astounding culmination of the artist's Black Star Press pictures, his most important series to date. Placed on its side is the repeated black-and-white image of a black student being attacked by police during the clashes between Civil Rights activists and the pro-segregationist authorities in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Manipulating the original image and taking it through several digital incarnations and alterations, Walker has here reproduced it across a massive expanse and completely transformed its meaning, firstly through the original manipulation of image and scale and also through the extraordinary technique of silkscreened white and dark chocolate in which he has bathed the image. Walker himself is from Columbus, Georgia in the deep South of America, so the subject carries deeply important overtones for Walker and American culture in general; the use of new techniques and the overlaying of chocolate in particular, gives it an explosive charge.
However, Walker has both explored and studiously dismantled each of these layers of reference: he has turned the images on their side, he has silkscreened chocolate over them, and even the spontaneous look of the brown marks across each panel is undermined by the fact that they were in fact originally applied to another surface which the artist then scanned. He then screenprinted the digitised image of the chocolate onto the surface, using chocolate in place of inks. This self-referentiality, with chocolate both existing as and representing chocolate, recalls another great artist from the Southern states, Jasper Johns, whose own works often used an intensely focussed self-referentiality that resulted in their stand-alone power, their hermetically-sealed conceptual robustness. While Walker is invoking that sort of self-containment and autonomy, he is also dismantling it. At the same time, his use of chocolate reveals the artist tauntingly and irreverently using domestic, commercial products and technological and mechanical means in order to create the illusion of gesturality. Here, he has taken a serious political message and dressed it in a highly charged medium, not just politically, but also commercially: the smell of the chocolate entices you in as a consumer.
The puzzle-like arrangement of the words 'Black Star Press' in the title immediately hint at the playful way which Kelley Walker is dealing with the dual concepts of appropriation and replication in our contemporary world. The title has, like the triptych itself, layer upon layer of references. The Black Star Press was the publishing arm of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, founded in 1969 and named in tribute to the famous shipping enterprise founded by Marcus Garvey partly in order to repatriate African-Americans to Africa, the Black Star Line. However, Black Star was also the name of the photographic agency set up by three New York-based Jewish German refugees in 1935 which employed the likes of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and, in this case, Charles Moore to travel to Birmingham, Alabama, of which he was a native, to document the conflict on the streets there during the Civil Rights campaign. Moore's photographs would, the following year, be used as a source by Warhol for his Race Riots, and indeed Walker himself used some of his pictures too. However, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise); Black Star, Black Press, Star Press is based on one of the most iconic images from the troubles in Birmingham taken by another photographer, Bill Hudson, who was employed by the Associated Press.
This image showed a young black student, Walter Gadsden, being attacked by police and mauled by a police dog. Gadsden had been present as a mere observer; this striking photograph of unwarranted violence consolidated support for the Civil Rights movement when it was published in large format on the front page of The New York Times on 4 May 1963. Within the Civil Rights movement itself, the shock of that front page resulted in the vast majority of people backing the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr whereas previously there had been divisions. And in the wider context of the USA, even the then President John F. Kennedy discussed the picture several times, bemoaning the constraints that hindered the federal government from intervening in Birmingham. A month later, he made a speech announcing his intention to pass the Civil Rights Act, and the following year, sadly after his assassination, it was passed.
The image, of course, immediately presents reflections upon Andy Warhols renowned series of Race Riot paintings from 1964, executed in direct response to the protests that were occurring and offering an immediate artistic response. In many ways, Warhol's images are the abiding memory of this time for the children of the 21st Century and it is this heritage which Walker is tackling in his images. By adopting an image which is similar but not the same and exposing it to various screens of digital manipulation and then turning it 90 degrees clockwise, he is taking 'appropriation art' to its absurd extreme. Furthermore, in his use of the silkscreen technique pioneered by Warhol, he makes further reference. However, in this case he is obviously using chocolate as the medium for the screen in order to create images of spilt chocolate itself. In other words, everything which Walker is depicting here has at least two degrees of removal from its original form.
Walker's own working process embraces the way in which images are mediated and compromised in order to reveal those same processes. In this sense, his reliance on computer technology is deliberate: even the rotation of the image is a result of and reference to the arbitrary settings in publishing programmes like Photoshop and InDesign, which allow the user to turn the image a set number of degrees. Likewise, his use of the scanner as an artistic implement emphasises science and design over the vigour of the Abstract Expressionists. Knowingly making use of modern processes, Walker plunges us into the media-intensive world we inhabit, where images flick past us on the streets, the television or while we browse the internet. Like those processes, the scanner is a great leveller, avoiding hierarchies of judgement, discerning no difference between chocolate stains and historical photos.
Walker therefore uses this vivid triptych to expose and undermine the way that images function in our media-saturated world. The fact that issues of race are still so evocative today is used as the motor for Walker's examination of the power of images. He deliberately probes sensitive areas and themes in order to explore and expose the entire nature of image making and display. As a white artist from the South, his repeated use of source images from Birmingham in the 1960s or of covergirls from the magazine King, which is largely aimed at African-American audiences, reveals an artist deliberately representing subjects that appear sensitive enough to approach taboo.