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What do Richard Diebenkorn and John Walker have in common? When they sink their teeth into something, they aren’t likely to let it go. They are patient but dogged. However, while Diebenkorn wrests every possible nuance out of a motif, and is able to achieve a calming pictorial elegance, Walker knowingly eschews decorum. Rough, awkward, odd and jarring, his work is like the hideously overweight cousin who chews with his mouth open at the dinner table. No matter how much you might try, you can’t really ignore him. But this is precisely what I admire about Walker’s work. He makes paintings that you can move around in, argue with, think about, and chew on. He gives you more than you bargained for, and, in that sense, he is an immensely generous artist, just not in the way you might want.
This was evident in the two paintings, “John Constable’s Tree” (2014) and “Bird Strike” (2009), that I saw in the 2015 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, hosted by the Academy of American Arts and Letters (March 12–April 12, 2015). In “Bird Strike,” which is thirteen feet long, Walker stripped the painting down to two forms stretching across the length of the painting’s white ground, one a reddish-brown tree branch and the other a gray tree branch (or is it a thick vine?) that loops around on the far right. Small, black-capped chickadees (Maine’s state bird) emerge from a column of black, smudge-like marks rising, as well as dissipating, behind the two forms.
Despite the expansiveness of the two branches traversing the painting, their linear forms feel slowed down. This is not a spinoff of Abstract Expressionism and Franz Kline, and it is a mistake to think so. Walker has stretched the two linear forms out so that they become stark, brooding thoughts, ideograms raised to a monumental scale. Rather than participating in a nostalgic revival or resorting to parody, he cuts across the grain of expectation, determined to push the painting into a new mental and visual space.
In “John Constable’s Tree,” Walker layers the space with abstract and figural forms, tonal areas and coloristic shifts. The gray-barked tree trunk in the middle of the canvas, flanked by two different, brightly colored geometric arrangements, elevate the painting into a talismanic presence. Along with invoking John Constable, Walker sends a love letter to Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and other geometric abstractionists. Instead of privileging one way of painting and seeing over another, Walker embraces both observational evidence and visual signs.
Walker’s harsh juxtapositions clang with the restlessness and discomfort underlying his awareness that life is ingenuous and slippery. How do you evoke that which is sliding away, changing, and becoming something else when you’re working with slow and sedentary paint, with colored mud? This is one of the questions Walker ponders in his latest exhibition, Looking Out To Sea, in the large, new space of Alexandre Gallery (November 3-December 22, 2015). Or, to paraphrase the artist, how do you turn mud into air? The transformation that Walker describes is alchemical; it is turning base matter into light, into something that goes beyond its viscous substance.
The framing of that question is central to Walker’s work. The core of the exhibition is eight large, recent paintings consisting of zigzag horizontal and vertical stripes done in variations of Veronese green and deep, rich blue, punctuated by white, ochre, red, and cadmium yellow. Interlocking and overlapping shapes that recall fronds, puzzle pieces, or shields might contain the stripes, while others are unmarked. Some shapes appear to have been generated by the zigzag lines. In a number of paintings a band of solid color containing a round shape (sun or moon) runs along the top. The result is what my colleague, Thomas Micchelli, perceptively characterized as “a vertically tilted, crazily Cubistic landscape.”
Walker applies the paint bluntly and directly, determinedly resisting stylishness, sensitivity, and the picturesque, but never losing either his exuberance or urgency. When his brush begins running out of paint, he continues to pull it across the surface. This happens repeatedly in the black horizontal stripes in “The Point in Bloom I” (2015), where the bands of paint lose their solidity, become dry and patchy, as if they have been worn away by the weather. What makes Walker’s paintings powerful, and indeed what distinguishes them from Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, is that they feel rudimentary.
Of course, Walker is a highly sophisticated painter who has internalized many different artists and art forms – from Rembrandt, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Marsden Hartley to Aboriginal Australian bark paintings and African art. Born and educated in England, he has also lived in America and Australia, and absorbed something from the art he has seen in each of these places. However, rather than developing a style that subsumes these disparate possibilities, Walker makes paintings whose distinct parts (or signs) don’t fit together, but do not feel arbitrary. His refusal to make picturesque work is conceptual.
First, Walker abuts the tilted landscape, with its aerial view, against a horizon line, making everything seem off kilter. Things are both too far and too close in this jumpy, jagged, vertiginous world. The brushstrokes shift unexpectedly from wide to thin. He often paints one pattern over another, turning the surface into a textured skin, like a wall that has been hurriedly covered over many times. The zigzag patterns of electric blues and viridian greens permeate the painting with a strident, hallucinatory effect that feels primordial. Lots of artists try to make abstract paintings that look primitive, but Walker is one of the few to succeed at it. I suspect that one reason Walker never looks as if he trying to be a primitive is because, like Hartley, he is ultimately a visionary painter for whom the Maine coast becomes a springboard for all sorts of metaphysical speculation.
The inspiration for these paintings is Seal Point on Maine’s southern coast, near Walker’s home. In a catalogue essay for the artist’s previous show with Alexandre Gallery, Chris Crosman wrote 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.
In an interview that Jennifer Samet did with Walker for Hyperallergic Weekend, the artist stated:
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. I painted too many pictures about it. But when I go there, I get really excited. I feel alive, and it doesn’t matter how many people come there and look at it. They’re not going to sit where I sit, or see it the way I see it.
At one point, a day or two after I had seen Walker’s show, I began thinking about Frank Stella, who was born in 1936, and is three years older than Walker, who was born in Birmingham, England, in 1939. Stella rejected his early paintings, such as “Delta,” “East Broadway,” and “Blue Horizon” (all from 1958) because he did not want to make work that could be read. He didn’t want his paintings to be coarse, but impenetrable. He wanted to close the viewer out. Walker does the opposite. He invites the viewer into a world that is dissonant, elegiacal, haunted, inchoate and primordial.
Stella’s “Black paintings” signaled a change in the art world, as they did much to move painting into an optical realm of empty signs. Starting in the 1960s, Stella wanted his work to be cool, calculating, and inevitable. He became the art world’s equivalent of the well-dressed, well-educated, physically fit cousin who celebrates the idea of fun with the fervor of a Bible-thumping revivalist. He believed that bravado and spectacle were what people wanted and in many ways he was right.
Walker did not want to prove that he was either right or inevitable. He stubbornly rejected decorum and the picturesque, and turned away as well from the charming mysteries of Howard Hodgkins and the pleasing eye candies served up by David Hockney. In paintings such as “Serenade II” (2015), “Meders Smoke” (2015), and “Fall North Branch Johns Bay” (2002), he embraces the obdurate world of mud and dissipation – the changing seasons of Seal Point, with its bracing tides, cold sunlight and washed up trash and debris. From the jagged stripes to the vibrating patterns to the clashing forms to the gritty surfaces, everything in these paintings has been lived intensely. Such passion has nothing to do with the prevailing narratives of art, and its preference for bluster and irony, but it does have a lot to do with painting, and why I, for one, go to Walker’s paintings to get the news of what it means to be alive in an indifferent universe. Stella’s paintings make me feel small, while Walker’s help me understand this inescapable state. The decision is clear. You can choose either the stunning or the sustaining, but, in the deepest sense, you cannot have both.
Looking Out To Sea continues at Alexandre Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 22.