For patterns with origins in gestures so simple and systematic, the ordered forms in Dan Walsh’s paintings lead to a remarkable profusion of effects. They’re minimalistic—but not necessarily. They’re formalist—but not in the whole. They’re meditative—but somehow both more and less ethereal than a mention of meditation might suggest.
“In the beginning, I see it as a gesture marking time; by the end, there’s so much information that it starts to define its own space—and you look in a different way,” Walsh said while leading a tour, methodically, through his latest show at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. On view are paintings made in a recognizable mode—with functional lines, elemental shapes, and grid-evincing lozenges that evoke a language of their own. Walsh likened it to Morse code—“the dashes, the dots, a simple vocabulary that, with concentration, I put through complex systems that are still natural.”
Another corollary is the creation and observation of Tibetan mandalas, whose conjoined processes of making and then contemplation after the fact are inextricable. “It tends to dabble in Zen,” Walsh said of his work. “People have accused me of being a Buddhist, but then there’s also something great about doing something really right.”
In paintings like Debut and Circus (both 2016), math figures in—but maybe mostly figuratively. Numbers play a role in patterns that expand and multiply in size by certain ratios, but Walsh maintains that his talk of systems is not entirely binding. “It’s all additive, but maybe logic is a better word than systems,” he said. And anyway: “I call myself a cheating Sol LeWitt—I’m making judgement calls as I go.”
Among the paintings are different kinds of work than Walsh is most commonly known for, in particular a pair of large floor sculptures: one in a conical shape comprising 600 feet of nautical rope wound in circles of diminishing size, and the other a gridded mass made of glimmering copper piping and mesh. The sculptures derive in part from structures Walsh made for a 2016 show at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts in collaboration with his sister, “Both Sides Now: Lexa and Dan Walsh.” Lexa’s work tends toward art activated as social practice, while her brother’s is more about optical and perceptual experience. “We are both interested in interaction,” Walsh said, “but in different ways.”
The exhibition included artifacts from the Williams College Museum’s collection. “There were valuable objects and we had to figure out ways to keep people from touching them,” Walsh said. “The idea of metals and skins as barriers came into play.”
The forms also correspond to shapes in the paintings, at least suggestively so, and signal still more active parts of Walsh’s practice, which includes making artist books and working with woodcuts. The current show at Paula Cooper—on view through February 4—is a response of sorts to his previous show at the gallery, in 2015, which introduced many viewers to forms of Walsh’s work other than paintings. “It showed a versatility in my work that a lot of people didn’t have access to except my closest friends,” he said. “It revealed a broader view of me.”
A back room at the gallery features paintings alongside examples of those other forms. Sculptural relief works were made with circular drill bits enlisted for different lengths of time, and works on paper were made by repeating the same regimented, pivoting strokes with brushes dipped in ink that would dwindle as the paper soaked it up.
Asked if a similar sort of almost mantric rigor and systematic actions carry through to the rest of his life, Walsh considered the idea, conceded they do a bit, but then ultimately demurred. “I consider myself a hedonist outside the studio,” he said. “But I do things right: I cook a good egg, and I care about how they are cooked.” He is also an accomplished carpenter and electrician, he noted.
In his art, in any case, the simplicity and complexity—and crosscurrents between the two—of formal arrangements keep him rapt. “I love giving myself complex problems to solve,” he said. “I like puzzles and visual situations that I have to sort out. I’m always looking for problems just to keep me interested.”