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The Buck stopped here

John Walter puts on a viral extravaganza at CGP London

Strike a pose... John Walter pays homage to Bruce McLean amidst his maximalist capsid show Louisa Buck

“Capsid” is the name of the nasty protein shell that enables the rapid spread of viruses such as HIV. Not the most auspicious subject for a show, but John Walter’s new eponymous extravaganza—which opened last weekend in CGP London’s The Gallery and its satellite space Dilston Grove in Southwark Park—fearlessly tackles the complexities of virology and the spread of deadly infection using film, foam, paintings, prints and banners and an abundance of other media. The result is a carnivalesque experience in which the language of art is harnessed to that of science in unorthodox ways to provide an exuberantly entertaining examination of a deadly serious subject that receives scant attention from today’s artists.

Whether a soap opera about an anthropomorphic HIV virus trying to wheedle his way into a pub or a series of patterned metal screens based on the “uncoating” moment when the capsid releases viral acid into its host, Walter’s visualisation of viral matters manages to be engaging and highly informative without either trivialising the subject or being finger-waggingly didactic.

His inventive ability to find new ways of expressing how viruses behave finds especially outrageous form in the garish collaged Innate Sensing Mechanism Paintings. These line the walls of CGP and use sickly pink adhesive foam and lines of silicone as the pictorial equivalent of cellular immunity suppressors, which the artist sees as a means to prevent the picture itself from “rejecting” the range of outrageously tacky elements he has adhered to its surface—including false breasts, cheap toys, pom-poms and seasonal greetings signs. Then there are the ten five-metre-wide Co-Factor Paintings, which punctuate the interior of the former mission church of Dilston Grove. In these the particles that guide the capsid through the cytoplasm to the cell nucleus are given a graphic equivalent in the dizzyingly overlayered and proliferating logos of global brands.

The pièce de résistance is A Virus Walks into a Bar, Walter’s first full-scale foray into an allegorical film-cum-soap opera which charts the biological journey of HIV. In the form of a capsid, the character manages to gain admission into a pub populated by a defensive crowd of proteins and cytoplasmic individuals, all clad in artist-customised onesies emblazoned with appliquéd symbols relating to the chemical components of its occupant. But just when they think they have defeated him, he proves to be ominously invincible…

Walter’s work may combine imagery from pulp TV, art history, pop and LGBT culture, yet it is always underpinned by scientific accuracy. Much of this current show stems from a longstanding association with structural virologist Professor Greg Towers, who specializes in HIV and intracellular immune response at University College London. Towers even declares: “John is now the de facto artist in residence for our department… he has embedded himself in my laboratory: he attends lab meetings and has mastered structure visualisation software, using it to learn about capsids and also to generate images that will later appear in his work.” The traffic is also two-way, with Towers also stating, “John asks us questions we have not previously considered… our collaboration is having tangible outcomes in science as well as art.”

In his maximalist approach, performative tendencies and a penchant for a bizarre and excessive costume—which are all in such evidence in this show—Walter also acknowledges an important debt to his Slade tutor, the mighty Bruce McLean. While striking a McLean-esque pose amidst his flamboyant oeuvre last weekend, Walter recalled that his tutor always made a point of instructing him, “to keep doing: when in doubt, make some more”. Advice this most prolific and important artist took to heart and has followed to excellent effect.

  • John Walter: Capsid, CGP London—The Gallery and Dilston Grove, until 8 July