For one who has reported that he doesn’t believe in the art world, Jack Walls must be counted among the singularly in outsiders. Finding himself as a young man at the center of Robert Mapplethorpe’s whirlwind, he somehow remained true to some inner sense of authenticity – one that made him turn away from making art when, as he has also said, “It was not wise to continue. I had more pressing issues.” He’s referring to Mapplethorpe’s demise and the deaths of so many during the onset plague of AIDS in the late 1980s. Walls stopped drawing and painting, and immersed himself in the written word for many years.
But he’s back. Basilica Hudson will fill the Back Gallery with his most recent works: “Paintings, et Cetera,” pieces just removed from a show at RARE Gallery in New York City. The new series of 34 abstract portraits constitutes a return to the visual arts with…not a vengeance, but a strong sense of vibrancy and interior expression. The paintings will be shown in conjunction with the African carvings that were their inspiration, along with related materials and archival items from Walls’s personal collection.
After a rough start in Chicago – gangs and incarceration and the like – he discovered the power of writing through such greats as James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, along with large doses of Genet, Wilde and Rimbaud. It was during this period that he developed a heavy fantasy life, considering that the imaginative world of self-expression was where he wanted to dwell. And to enrich that, he decided he needed to seek adventure. “It was a cognitive decision for me to go out and have an interesting life.”
After a stint in the Navy in the West Pacific, Walls came to New York for a seven-year stay with Mapplethorpe, then back to Chicago for a while to study filmmaking and screenwriting at the Chicago Filmmakers, and then to New York again, where his writing career eventually seemed to lay flat. Poetry was always foremost in his efforts, and he became mentor to a number of young artists, Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow among his tribe.
A summer visit to Cherry Valley near Cooperstown in 2003 turned into five years of creative work, which culminated in a group of photographic collages, an epic prose piece titled The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn and a series of paintings called Mona Lisa. At a certain point, he was relocated by friends to the town of Hudson, where the cultural vibe is rich and experimental.
“My friends told me, ‘Jack, you’re moving to Hudson. We found a real estate person, and she’s looking for you.’” He picked a house that he saw on a video on his computer, bought it and was packed and moved in a week. “It was Ryan McGinley. He told me, ‘Jack you’re going to love it. There’s people, you can interact, there’s restaurants.’ So that’s how I got here.” He feels at home.
Now functioning at the distant fringe of the New York City art scene, Walls continues to produce artworks in series, such as the one to be shown at Basilica Hudson titled Heads. He has said that he likes doing things over and over, “because if it’s a good idea once, it’s a good idea twice. I believe in cohesion, the overall effect, the story.” He sat up one day and began naming the portraits, as if they’d just introduced themselves to him. He dubs the series “user-friendly” in that the pictures could hang in the living room of someone with children – this, in contrast to some of his more provocative work.
“I didn’t have my first one-man show until I was 50,” he said. “I always avoided that label ‘artist.’ I wasn’t doing it to show people. I was doing it because that’s my impulse. When people started writing articles and saying ‘Artist Jack Walls…’ it kind of made it legit. I accepted it. Robert always told me my artistic instincts were really good. I didn’t believe in myself. If I see people at a party and the first thing they tell you is that they’re an artist – I never believe those people! A real artist wouldn’t, you know. When artists start talking about their art, I thank God for Instagram, because when someone asks me, ‘What does your work look like?’ I can say ‘Go to Instagram.’”
Do it. Go to Instagram, and then go to Basilica Hudson to meet the man, Jack Walls, and see his startling work in person. The July 17 opening will include a screening of Eye to Eye, featuring Walls’s narration about Mapplethorpe’s work, and a performance of Walls’s book with musical accompaniment by Harbour. Closing night on Saturday, August 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. will include a discussion with Walls and local art historian Sean Osborne.
The exhibit will be on view until Sunday, August 2. For more about the artist, visit https://jackwalls.com/about.
Jack Walls’s “Paintings, et Cetera” opening, Friday, July 17, 6-8 p.m., free, Basilica Hudson, 110 South Front Street, Hudson; (518) 822-1050, www.basilicahudson.com.