Herring Carnival: Recent paintings by Morgan Walker

The painter's show "Carnival of the Animals" features dinosaurs, pigs, butterflies, and a revised outlook.

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The carnival theme pops up in unexpected ways: bright geometric shapes on the sides of some of the canvases, a glamorous animal trainer holding a fish for a crane, or the less glamorous rendering of a woman hoisting a bucket (at least she has a toucan on her shoulder). The nineteenth-century musical suite, Les Carnaval des Animaux composed by Camille Saint-Saens, provides the show’s title “Carnival of the Animals.” 

Due to Covid, Walker won’t give a gallery talk for this show so he’s written a short essay or “notes” as a stand-in. The notes as engrossing as they are frenetic and varied. They throw open Walker’s process and reveal the inspirations behind his iconography. It is the backdrop for the works but it is a partial story, one that doesn’t misdirect but perhaps obfuscates.

In some cases, the correlation between Walker’s notes and the paintings is direct and illuminating. The small paintings directly inside the gallery door – Butter Queen and Parable of the Apples – are the most straightforward. The Guernsey cow that dominates the small composition honors the life-sized fiberglass cow that graced the Walker family dairy in Louisiana. The “queen” celebrates Walker’s first art history professor, an inspiring teacher who, unbeknownst to Walker until much later, tackled everything from butter sculptures to linoleum in her scholarship. 

painting by Morgan Walker of a man in blue pants holding a pig up to eat an apple off of a tree. A goat stands in the foreground.
Morgan Walker, Parable of the Apples (2021). Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches.

The namesake parable tells of a farmer who holds his pig up to a tree so he can eat apples. A passerby asks the farmer why he doesn’t just shake the apples off the tree and let the pig eat them from the ground, because it would be faster and more efficient. The farmer responds: “What is time, to a pig?” Walker’s farmer hoists the pig up to a tree to consume a single apple. The blue paint of the farmer’s pants exceeds the outline, revealing a process of fits and starts, the labor of getting this painting right over the course of a year. 

Carnivals, fairs, and farm animals are familiar fare in Walker’s work and biography: his grandmother bred show cattle and rhesus monkeys; his father was a rodeo cowboy. It’s a personal mythology that Walker relies upon to great effect and charm. Yet in this show, the works that pick up the carnival theme are a red herring for the other, more personal and urgent theme: resolve and resilience, staking a claim to continue and thrive as an artist.

Walker’s previous show at Augen Gallery was in March of 2020. The show had a Thursday opening but it was sparsely attended because of the looming Covid panic. The Saturday gallery talk, two days later, was cancelled. This would prove the lesser of 2020 upheavals. In early June 2020, Walker’s full-time position at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), where he had taught for two decades and was the Head of Painting, was, per the press release, “eliminated” in the interest of “reduc[ing] the operating budget” of the school (purportedly) “in response to COVID-19.” 

It is here that I should disclose that I teach at PNCA as an adjunct instructor. I have worked with Walker for years and know him to be a beloved teacher and valued colleague. One of the reasons I’ve stayed at PNCA is because of the community. The 2020 cuts of faculty and staff may have been necessary to keep the doors open. The school was in dire financial straits, even pre-dating Covid. The merger with Willamette University was a complete surprise to most faculty and all students when it was announced in September 2020; it was finalized in June of 2021. The treatment of Walker and the other faculty members who were “eliminated” was not befitting of any community under any circumstances. Survival mode and transition have veiled the loss since; it hasn’t been fully contended with or confronted. 

For Walker, in the light of the destabilization of dismissal that stripped not only livelihood but a long-held community identity, it’s easy to see why this quote from Bertrand Russell’s “Unpopular Essays” that he includes in his “notes” would strike as poignant:

Our planet, which philosophers are apt to take a parochial and excessive interest, was once too hot to support life, and will in time be too cold. After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Ghengis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time, the earth will become incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.

In other words: In the long run, this too, shall pass. Walker started painting those harmless trilobites and butterflies. To force himself into the studio, he scheduled a show at Augen six months ahead of what had been his previous exhibition schedule. The result is a group of works that demonstrate maturation in technique and subject and pointedly provide a rebuke to the school located only a few blocks from the gallery: What were you thinking? 

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The works from the Covid-doomed 2020 show “I Blame Society” were full compositions, an opportunity to fill the canvases with as many weird and wonderful details as possible. They’re a frenzied cacophony of references: oil derricks, catfish, protest signs, liftings from Georges Seurat, Sandro Botticelli, etc. etc. etc. The canvases are accomplished and confident. 

Morgan Walker, Still Life with Stegosaurus (2021). Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches.

There are echoes in the current show of the earlier works: Still Life with Stegosaurus presents a bunch of bananas, a half watermelon, and a stegosaurus – all components so carefully executed that the inexplicable size relationships don’t immediately register. The mottled hide of the stegosaurus and hazy landscape contrast with the bright, waxy surfaces of the fruits. 

Walker has painted dinosaurs in the past, but in the company of the trilobites and butterflies of Bertrand Russel’s inspiration, they seem more symbols of change than announcements of quirky fun. The marshy foreground of Swamp Lotus supports a drinking crane and a lizard, an edaphosaurus and brontosaurus loom behind, shadowy figures alluding to the inevitability of evolution. The willowy lotus, itself a symbol of regeneration and rebirth, rises out of the muck while butterflies hover above. 

Morgan Walker, Swamp Lotus (2021). Oil on canvas, 34 x 28 inches.

The compositions are more open than most previous works, many relying on a subtle shift in tone to differentiate between the variegated earth and sky. The show includes two landscapes: Mysterious Island and Swan. In The Promised Land, the thick outline of a mammoth anchors the right side of the composition. This mammoth turns back to face a long procession of pachydermic compatriots, those at the back of the line dissolving into the horizon line.

Morgan Walker, The Promised Land (2021). Oil on canvas, 42 x 66 inches.

The weird and wonderful are still present but now flaunt expert handling of paint. The star of Trilobites and Butterflies is not the fossilized arthropods or winged insects but instead a multi-tentacled squid with a long horn that would seem more at home on a narwhal. On the head of the squid, with its mischievous eye peering out, the horn looks to be more of a dunce cap. Digital reproductions are never perfect representations, but for many of the works in this show the limitations are even more prominent because of the limited palette and richness of the painted surface. The articulation of the wayward squid’s horn and tentacles is best beheld in person. 

Butterflies are the novelty introduction, perched on the bananas or suspended above the lotus and dinosaurs. Walker says he had never painted butterflies before the works in this show. The introduction of one of the most basic school-child examples of metamorphosis seems too tidy. I shudder to even suggest it, because it edges cliché so closely. But then I remember the butterflies were always ancillary, never center stage. They were paired with mammoths, a variety of dinosaurs, and those pesky trilobites. The prehistoric sea cockroaches can keep us all grounded until, as Russell promises, the peace returns.

Detail of trilobites:
Morgan Walker, Trilobites and Butterflies (2021). Oil on canvas, 34 x 28 inches.

“Carnival of the Animals” is on view until October 30th. Augen Gallery (716 NW Davis) is open 11:30-5:00 Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment other days and times.

About the author

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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