Disclosure, in John Walker’s paintings, comes slowly. A dominant motif — zigzag stripes ranging up, down and across the canvas — colonizes the surface, establishing it as a realm of aggressively brushed abstract patterns. Then one by one, various incidentals emerge — a densely wooded island, a rocky outcropping, the flat disk of the sun — and suddenly you’re looking at a vertically tilted, crazily Cubistic landscape. And you lean in closer to find what else you might have missed.
John Walker: Recent Paintings, the current exhibition at the Alexandre Gallery, features seven large pictures as well as numerous smaller ones, including more than a dozen compact oils made on discarded Bingo cards, which the artist found in the former grange hall that became his studio in Seal Point on the coast of Maine.
Densely hung in the gallery’s living room-size main space, the large paintings, which are all seven feet tall and five and a half feet across, swarm you with their edgy, jagged energy. The stripe motif is such a commanding element that at first it doesn’t register that two of the canvases, “Touch” (2013), a mostly blue-and-white seascape adorned with loosely meandering charcoal lines, and “White Reach #2” (2014), in which a large Guston-esque white outcropping collides with a set of scab-colored triangular shapes, don’t contain the pattern at all.
Once that’s clarified, the differences among the other images begin to assert themselves. “Brake” (2014) is a clash of horizontal and vertical stripes, with swaths of ochre drifting across the surface and a band of intense cadmium yellow along the upper edge, while in “Raft,” (also 2014), the vertical stripes run from top to bottom, with two horizontal sets constrained within shield-like shapes on the left and right, calling to mind Walker’s fascination with Aboriginal and African art. In these two works, like all the paintings in the show, the color is acetic, the paint handling is pugnacious, and the surface is so gritty you can almost taste it.
But there are tiny marvels beneath the aggression — simmering florets of intense pigment; elegantly ridged smears of paint; watery splashes of translucent, earthy green denoting a rocky islet (“raggedy, spruce covered Peabow Island,” as Christopher Crosman describes it in his essay for the show’s catalogue) glimpsed from Seal Point’s shoreline — the rewards of simply letting your eyes roam.
Crosman writes that these paintings “don’t depict Seal Point but rather are meditations on the ineffable qualities of a place as Walker has experienced it — color, light, motion, shape, texture — recording the narrative of how the artist feels about this special location over the course of changing seasons, months and years.”
He also cites the artist’s affinities with Henri Matisse, in particular “The Conversation” (1908-12), in which one of the two conversationalists is dressed in striped pajamas, and the “irregular, floating shards of color and eccentric, angular forms” found in the late cutouts. Crosman distinguishes Walker’s stripes as “far less well-behaved” than Matisse’s, but while intimations of the early Modernist master are undeniable, there is something astringently anti-Matisse about Walker’s way of making a picture.
Matisse preferred to disguise the effort he put into a painting, often wiping down a day’s work so that the final version, whenever it arrived, would appear to have been done in a single shot. Walker’s incessant reworking, detailing and course corrections toughen the skin of his canvases, fundamentally shifting them away from the School of Paris toward a craggier, more American sensibility (Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove). Walker was born in Birmingham, England, in 1939, and was trained there and in Paris, but he first came to the U.S. in 1969 and has spent much of his professional life in university teaching positions in New York, New Haven and Boston.
It’s no surprise that Walker, in Crosman’s account, encourages his graduate students at Boston University “to work for extended periods — weeks at a time or as long as possible — painting one subject,” even inviting them for “week-long visits during the fall and spring to his home in Seal Point” to escape the interruptions of academic course schedules.
In an expansive interview with Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic Weekend, Walker surmises that he repeatedly paints Seal Point because “Subconsciously, I may have wanted to own something. When you look at Cézanne, whether it’s the mountains, or a still life, you are looking at someone who is the world’s expert, who knows more about it than anyone else. That is what Seal Point is to me.”
The difference is that, rather than drilling into the solidity of Mont Sainte-Victoire, as Cézanne did, constantly honing the same image, Walker’s paintings are extravagant rearrangements of the visual cues that make the sea the sea, the sky the sky, and the sun the sun. Formal invention abounds, especially in the Bingo cards (some of which were hand-labeled “Beano” by Seal Point’s long-ago gamblers as a way of sidestepping a state law against playing Bingo for money), where loosely applied smears, blots, speckles and truncated grids vie for space with the voluminous white outcropping found in “White Reach #2” and other works.
Walker has claimed Seal Point not only for himself, but also for the clangorous currents — American, English, European, Modern, premodern and global — that channel through his work. He plunges his sieve into the sediment, sifting out the finer bits in favor of the gravel and sand.
John Walker: Recent Paintings continues at the Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, 13th floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 15.
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