Rain was splintering the L.A. sunlight when I met painter Sebastien Walker in the alley behind the Seventh Letter Gallery on Fairfax. Late the previous night he'd moved in several large canvases and all of his personal studio tools and ephemera, and was so tired when he left that he inadvertently locked himself out. On the morning we met, the code wasn’t enough to open the door, so we drank coffee, smoked a spliff and waited for someone to come to our rescue. Walker is a laid-back guy. He grew up skateboarding and writing graffiti in the Ninth Arrondissement of Paris, the youngest child of a concert pianist and an opera singer. He’s been in Los Angeles for 10 years to the day of the opening of his first solo show, “The Smoking Fish,” which features new paintings and a larger, personal collection of art that is normally part of his studio.
When I ask why an artist would leave Paris for Los Angeles, he replies, “L.A. is where it is happening. I see [French] artists I was admiring as I was just starting graffiti as a teen that are still struggling or simply disappeared. The level is really good in France, but the market and interest is really small compared to here — 60 million people versus 360 million; the American dream in some sort of way.”
“The Smoking Fish” is a character in Walker’s comedic and subversive universe. At 11 years old, he discovered dirty French comics on a flight from Paris to Corsica. “The guy sitting next to me was reading a comic book full of big-chested, beautiful women. He saw how I kept peeking during the whole flight and gave it to me once we landed.” Comics like Fluide Glacial and its precursor Heavy Metal influenced not only his style but his storytelling. His colorful characters drink beer, fight, smoke, crack jokes and are totally shameless. “I tend to speak to the dirty-minded child in all of us,” he says.
Walker studied graphic design and briefly worked in advertising in Paris (which he hated), while painting walls around the city with friends. Once in L.A., he went to Otis for his master's degree, but hated that too. Fortunately, he was enriched by a night class at Art Center taught by California-based artists the Clayton Brothers, but for the most part his work “wasn’t Otis,” he says, citing the disparity between his progression as an artist and graphic design. He befriended local artists, but an opportunity to paint at Mr. Brainwash’s warehouse mega-show on La Brea in 2011 altered his experience significantly, particularly when he met DAME from the Seventh Letter crew. Joining that family of artists has been integral to being able to launch such a large exhibit now. “Being recognized by my peers changed everything: if it wasn't for Casey [Zoltan] and the family of talented and good humans he has built around him, I would most likely have stopped painting, at least on walls, or just not shown my work, do it as a hobby and work a 9-to-5,” Walker says. “Being surrounded by people you admire only brings the best out of you. I am learning from the best, to slowly become better than I thought I could ever be. It is said that steel sharpens steel, right?”
Once we finally got inside the gallery space, we could barely walk through. Stacks and stacks of canvases waited to be hung. Part of his personal collection of artwork from his home studio began to fill one of the larger white walls. The influence of artists like Banksy, Estevan Oriol and RETNA is present in his work's DNA. His desk, easel and piles of sketches and personal things were transplanted — he's essentially installed a replica of his studio in the back gallery, and will be working from the space for the entire month of April.
After a few late-night visits, I can see the shape of things to come. With sketches tacked up all over and his easel set with a canvas in progress, the space is starting to feel alive. The bold line work he uses in his drawings of everything from animals to children and even a humble self-portrait jumps off the walls.
After the installation's first week — during which Walker was only locked out one other time — the show had crept into every space of the gallery. When I arrived at the opening, the bright, colorful characters of Walker’s world were all there. The exhibit runs through April, and Walker will spend the month painting in his studio, in the gallery. People are encouraged to drop by during the gallery's business hours to visit.
Waiting 10 years to show may not be the norm, but Walker isn't fazed: “I wanted to do it well, make a statement, not have a show just to have a party, but make my entrance in the art world properly, how I want it, with the people I want to work with, showing work I am proud of in a place where people I respect showed their work. ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.’”
The Seventh Letter Gallery, 346 N. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax; through April 30. theseventhletter.com/collections/sebastien-walker.