Richard Walker is an observational painter who seems particularly interested in light, a concern that goes back to the Impressionists and the beginnings of modern art. However, if you think you are going to get a sugary rehash of Claude Monet, you are in for a surprise.
In his recent work, Walker’s interest in light — both real and projected — required him to sit in the dark in The Haining, a large 18th-century house in Scotland, the country of the artist’s birth and where he continues to work. The results can be seen in his second exhibition, House Paintings, at the Alexandre Gallery (November 29, 2012–January 5, 2013). Done in oil on board, the largest of which is 18. 5 x 24 inches, the largely black paintings slow you down until your eyes adjust to the indirect light (signaled by small concentrations of muted colors) in the otherwise darkened room (interlocking black planes).
Walker seems to have had a long interest in indirect or weak light. In 2005, in Beacon Road Painting, his debut exhibition in New York, also at the Alexandre Gallery (December 1, 2005–January 14, 2006), Walker showed paintings he had done while he was on a residency at the Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. They were intimately scaled works of winter landscapes in the morning or at sunset. Perhaps because he was painting in a very different geographical environment than Monet, Walker was interested in the way light entered into, as well as reflected on, a snow-covered, winter landscape into which pale yellow light has flooded a forest or more recently a darkened room. In the winter landscapes, Walker painted dark (tree trunks and branches) over light (snowy fields reflecting the sun). Working wet on wet, he laid the tree trunks down in a flurry of decisions, with the vertical strokes rhythmically dividing the expanse.
In this exhibition Walker can be said to have reversed his course and worked on black grounds, in effect pushing himself in various new ways. Again working wet into wet, he sometimes differentiates one part of the dark interior from another by dragging the brush through the viscous paint. In an illuminating interview with his friend, the erudite and always interesting painter, Merlin James, which is in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Walker states:
It’s all painting wet into wet. Very rarely I’ll go back into things, but mostly it’s in one sitting. In a way a lot of the work—the composing, the image making—was done in advance of the actual painting. Recently I had been experimenting with lots of different kinds and colours of priming on the boards or canvases, sometimes changing the ground colour halfway across the board. So the priming colour may gradate from greeny/black to cream. For the recent paintings they are white panels but I laid down a ground of a darker colour. I had four or five different blacks pre-mixed. Then I could use the white ground if needed, often wiping areas off to reveal the ground again, scratching through and on. Mostly the lighter colours are laid on the weather black, which takes quite a bit of control.
There is something decidedly virtuosic and yet powerfully modest in Walker’s synthesis of control and seeming casualness. He has applied thick dabs, short strokes, thinly painted rectangles, and a tangle of calligraphic lines to the sticky black surface with a light but firm touch. The viewer senses the time constraint, the unseen ticking clock pressuring the artist to make one decision after another. And this stress becomes a metaphor for time’s winged chariot. There is nothing coy or even charming about these paintings of darkened rooms in which bits of light come in through a window or are reflected from a laptop.
Walker’s interest in projected light and shadows, as well as in light coming through shuttered windows or cast from other rooms, has led him, in some works, to use a wall or hang a sheet as a surface upon which to depict a projected image, often of something else in the house. Working with a palette that includes various blacks, grays, gray/greens, black/reds, dark browns, and turquoise, Walker is a master of maximum effect with a restrained palette.
Walker’s use of projected images and shadows conveys his interest in photography and stage sets. These paintings can be read as the interiors of a box camera in which the shutter has not been completely opened or darkened stage sets in which the lights have not yet been turned on. It’s a world of anticipation, where events — or is it time? — have yet to completely reveal their motivations. At the same time, the darkened rooms can be read as a metaphor for the painter who must grope in the darkness of the present, working in the wake of Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Squares” and Ad Reinhardt’s “Black” paintings.
The one painter of the Impressionists that I would connect Walker to is James McNeill Whistler and his tonalist paintings such as “Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Chelsea” and “Nocturne, Grey and Gold” (both 1871). Whistler, who spent his adult life living in England and often painted the Thames at night or enshrouded in fog, was interested in atmosphere and the diffusion of light, whereas Walker is interested in complex, enclosed spaces in which light is visible on one surface but not the others. The space is fractured, like a jigsaw puzzle, and the parts both fit and don’t fit together. Viewers have to keep refocusing.
Walker’s love of paint and painting is evident in these uncompromising works. I say uncompromising because an exhibition of largely black interiors challenges viewers to look slowly and carefully, which is not typical of the art world or even of much painting. With his allusions to George Braque, Edward Hopper and the Scottish painter James Pryde, among others, as Walker readily admits in the interview with Merlin James, these paintings evoke the contested ground of painting itself. On one side are those who believe that the past cannot be recovered except through parody and citation, while on the other side are those who believe that bits of the past can be recovered and put to fresh use.
By utilizing projected images as part of his subject matter — evoking movie theaters and the world of the imagination — and simultaneously working in a premier coup manner, Walker is claiming that painting can make use of technological advances; that a painter need not be a Luddite. The open laptop on the table in “Brown Interior” (2011) is a small rectangle in a much larger one. Like the laptop, painting can bring viewers face to face with the here and now while transporting them to another world. He is asking a simple but profound question: Have we ever really looked at what is right in front of us?
Richard Walker: House Paintings is on view at Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 13th floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 5.