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An Artful Balance


The means justify the end

The more I think about Joe Walters' work and what I want to say about it the more baffled I become. The drawings and the sculptural work are straightforward, not the least bit confusing. The show at Joie Lassiter Gallery consists of several groupings: drawings of trees and the landscape and sculptural forms of plant life and bird nests. On some level they are perfectly ordinary, but on another level they are not. Walters has walked that thin line, rather successfully, of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The work succeeds in this way because it is completely driven by Walters' compulsion to make art and to do so with great care. There is an unmistakable immediacy and intimacy to these well-made objects; they are not made for an audience per se, they are clearly made for the artist. This is the nature of art that is process-driven rather than product driven: the means count for more than the ends.

While all art involves a process, "Process art" is a term that refers to a particular approach to art-making. Process art was defined by two important museum exhibitions in 1969: When Attitudes Become Form at the Berne Kunsthalle and the Whitney Museum of American Art's Procedures/Materials. Process art is best defined as material-driven rather than subject-driven. In Process art the method is more important than the result.

Joe Walters' work is all about process. The drawings are done on Bristol board. Walters first sketches out the image on the paper. He then marks his drawing even further by literally puncturing the drawing with a pointed instrument. The result is small, stippled holes that echo the original drawing. He then stains the drawing with tea, using the tannins to create a wide-ranging sepia toned palette. The drawing is then flipped. Next the paper's surface is sanded, bleached and sealed in Polyurethane. The resulting image looks like anything but a drawing on paper. In fact, when I first walked into the gallery I thought the drawings were etched on metal plates.

I have always been fascinated by drawings -- partly because they are all about process and discovery. In an essay titled "Drawing On Paper," John Berger once wrote that there are three distinct ways that drawings function. There are drawings that study and question the visible, those which put down and communicate ideas, and those done from memory. "Even in front of drawings by the old masters, the distinction is important, for each type survives in a different way. Each type of drawing speaks in a different tense. To each we respond with a different capacity of imagination."

Walters' drawings function on all three levels at once because they are Process art. The drawing that we cannot see, the one behind the image that we see, is the first type of drawing. This is the "study," so to speak. Past tense. (It would be quite interesting to see this work installed in a way that allowed you to see both sides.) When he begins his work on the other side of the paper -- sanding, bleaching, sealing -- he is at once working to communicate ideas and working with memory. Conditional tense.

The majority of the drawings are abstractions of tree forms in the landscape. The sinuous lines used to delineate the trees are accentuated by the extreme verticality of the paper. This format is reminiscent of the scrolls seen in Eastern watercolors. The monochromatic palette and the weathered surface texture communicate a brooding mood, an ancient quality. There is evidence of the artist's mark -- both purposeful and accidental -- suggesting both the temporal and organic quality of making and the natural world. The encrusted, textured surfaces further suggest the passage of time.

The exhibit also features two sculptural groupings -- one of nests, the other of vegetation. The sculptural work is exquisitely crafted and well conceived. At first glance the objects appear to be heavy cast metal. However, each object is crafted out of steel, polymer clay, sand, epoxy, and paint, making them relatively light.

The installation of the sculptural work is quite stunning. The nests are grouped on one wall and the vegetation on another. Each object is attached to the wall by an armature, which casts shadows of the objects against the wall. The interplay between each object and its echo is lovely.

The exhibit offers the viewer an opportunity to look at the work of an artist whose first commitment is to making objects. The spare installation is very successful. It points to the art and nothing else. It also provides a quiet, meditative environment that invites and encourages the process of looking at art.

Joe Walters is an alchemist with his materials. He works on the edge to craft beautiful objects out of an unlikely assortment of materials. In his drawings, he combines the intentional with the accidental. In his sculptural grids he suggests the order and chaos that is nature. His success lies in his ability to artfully balance form and subject, process and technique, idea and object.

Joe Walters' work will be on exhibit through March 26. Joie Lassiter Gallery, 318 E. Ninth St., is open from noon-5pm Wednesday through Friday. Appointments can be made by calling 704-373-1464 or email to

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