Nic Walker's Bargain Basement Used Cars

Haze Gallery, 6635 N. Baltimore Ste. 211, through Feb. 2

I 'm sure I'm not the only person in Portland who has dragged my feet to drive to the newly opened Haze Gallery in St. Johns. Housed in the same building as last summer's Modern Zoo, the gallery opened last November with Battle of the Artist Curators, a group exhibition that didn't seem to have much purpose besides aligning itself with the younger, independent art crowd. But with its first solo exhibition, the startlingly ambitious Bargain Basement Used Cars by Nic Walker, the gallery positions itself as a real player and contender on the scene, and as anything but a clumsily assembled DIY effort.

The gallery itself is gorgeous. Except for the spacious gallery that PICA is surrendering at the end of the month, there is no nicer space in town. Savage had a hell of a nice space, though it was as architecturally cold as a mortuary. I doubt the Pearl District poodles who are getting pampered in that space now care if they mess on a cement floor, or one of carpet, or hardwood, but as someone who enjoys seeing art in its best light, I care. Haze gets it just right--high ceilings, warm hardwood floors, a skylight that compliments the airy, professional lighting, a brick wall behind the desk, and most importantly, yards and yards of pure white walls. At 2200 square feet of mostly uninterrupted space, this is a gallery for art on a large scale; small wall pieces would be swallowed right up.

The enormous, multi-paneled paintings by Nic Walker, then, are a perfect fit. Walker is the artist who displayed a rotting deer carcass at an Everett Station gallery several years ago. This of course made people take notice of who he was, but now, years later, he's still known as the guy who showed the dead deer. This perception could begin to change with Bargain Basement Used Cars, the most ambitious local solo show since Dave Eckard's Tournament Lumens at the Art Gym.

The show is dominated by five pieces, the largest hovering around the 10x15' range. Each are painted in flat black on 4x4' wood panels, which are grouped in grids of six and eight to create large images that would have never fit in the small studio in which they were created. Each painting reproduces a reproduction of a photograph. They are painted as halftone reproductions--the interconnecting dots and blobs of black ink that our brains develop into complete images. If you stand any closer than eight feet or so from Walker's paintings, they appear almost completely abstract, just black spots that bleed into one another. From further away, they dissolve into clearer images, all automotive. There is a Depression era Ford pickup, a ragtop with suicide doors, and a deserted junkyard straight out of a Sam Shepard story. Since their painting style reveals that they were derived from print and have the pulpy noir of newspaper photos, viewers are invited to create histories for the mysterious vehicles, and tales of crime and death spring quickly to mind. So, too, to Warhol's paintings of car crashes, J.G. Ballard's novel and Cronenberg's subsequent movie Crash, and Richard Prince's extensive work on the seediness of car culture. Rarely do paintings change so much from the benefit of distance, so Walker's paintings keep viewers moving, prowling around the gallery for new insights and details that the pieces gradually reveal.

Call on Jesus is a series of 80 album-sized black ink drawings presented in a horizontal grid with a serial element that recalls a filmstrip. The drawings are rough, brushy studies of a bird that were created by imprinting a dead bird soaked in ink onto the paper. In case you don't catch that by looking at them, the crusty bird is on view under Plexiglas. Some of the drawings are quite haunting; many are quite boring. Using Death as a paintbrush doesn't go much farther than the "ewww" of a double dare. Nearby, a crank handle Victrola rests silently on a podium, loaded with Sinatra albums, furthering the nostalgia fetish that began with the rusty automobiles.

The real attraction here is in the beauty of the gallery and its presentation of ambitious local painting. Walker has kicked it up a notch or three, and despite a tired shock tactic and the fact that the paintings themselves aren't quite as interesting as their scale or technique, Bargain Basement Used Cars is a truly impressive solo exhibition that signals a coming of age for the artist and the gallery. CHAS BOWIE