ROCKLAND, Maine — In a subtly evocative installation photograph of John Walker: From Seal Point, currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the camera catches the light from the overhead clerestory windows in such a way that it seems to address, at least in part, how the paintings came to be and what they are about: The framing and passage of time.
The space that houses these ardent, full paintings — which seem to exhale in airy release — is so perfectly tuned to their eloquent fierceness, you might think Boston architect Toshiko Mori designed the gallery especially for Walker. The natural light washing the gallery walls, even on cloudy days, is both cleansing and muted, coaxing out the complexity of colors filtered through translucent gels, glazes, and pulsating globs. You can almost smell the salt air in John Walker’s most recent paintings, melding with the heavier, bracing smells and sounds from the nearby working harbor mere steps away from the museum. It’s the kind of vaulted and perfectly proportioned space that we imagine painters see, like dogs closing on rabbits, in their most rapturous dreams. Rarely does an exhibition conjoin so perfectly with its setting. Sometimes you just have to be there.
Born in Birmingham, England in 1939, Walker bought a house on Seal Point, Maine, in 1989. Prior to that, he had a distinguished teaching career that took him from Paris to London, Melbourne, New York, Boston, Yale and Oxford University. He is represented in permanent collections of major museums throughout the world, and he represented Great Britain at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Since retiring in 2014 from his most recent post, as director of the graduate program in art at Boston University, Seal Point is where he spends much of his time, working nearly every day.
Walker usually paints his larger canvases in a two-story former community hall near his home. In the hall, he found stacks of “Beano” or bingo cards that became the basis for small paintings. The 7 ½ x 5 ½-inch paintings on card stock are lightly but thoroughly worked and stand on their own as finished and fully realized paintings. They appear to be Walker’s heartfelt homage to the English landscape tradition — especially the work of John Constable — in which small, plein air paintings track moisture and ever-changing English skies over the cloud-piercing spire of Salisbury Cathedral. (One of the large paintings in the exhibition is titled “Constable’s Tree,” 2014).
For Walker, air, land, and sky are interchangeable in their fluidity; the artist paints them as layered, floating and charged, oozing, dragged within and often falling off the gridded card. Occasionally, printed elements from the Beano cards emerge, ghost-like from beneath the paint layers — a minuscule roving elephant, perhaps, or, more frequently, the underlying grid, including the numbers and letters of the bingo game. It has likely struck a bemused Walker that recycled and collaged numbers and alphabets had helped reinvent contemporary art half a century ago, in work by Jasper Johns. (Burying them once again beneath a different kind of abstract expression might well amuse Johns.) As intimate as the larger canvases are magisterial, the “Beano” paintings represent a distinct and intensely focused body of work. They encourage close looking, a teacher’s device for how one should penetrate, scan, and understand the larger paintings as well.
Walker is an unrepentant modernist who has led a resurgence — mostly through uncompromising example — of painters reinvigorating abstraction by looking to nature, ideas, emotion and, especially, place. The Seal Point paintings are the artist’s celebration of the tidal mud flats, wind-driven, irregular wave patterns, and the island-rimmed horizon hugging the upper edge of his canvases. It’s the view from his front door on Seal Point — arguably among the most visually arresting sights, fair weather and foul, along the entire Maine coast. Seal Point’s natural beauty borders on the sublime, initially intimidating Walker; it took ten years before he could paint what he saw.
As in the work of artists he most admires — Matisse, Hartley, Marin, even Rembrandt and Goya — Walker’s paintings don’t much look like their sources in the real world. Indeed, that is the point. They reference how a place feels more than how it looks, much like Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings describe the Southern California streetscape, his Santa Monica neighborhood’s compartments and divisions, dissolving into pure, high color within loose but straight boundaries, occasionally disappearing or simply slipping into the shimmering expanse of oceanic blueness. It represents a way of thinking about structure and color and place that Walker seems to share and references according his own unique vision.
Seal Point is Walker’s private realm of becoming, always present to his eye and real to his touch. The receding tide lets local clammers dig holes in the mud. The clam holes resemble the incantatory dotted surfaces of aboriginal Australian art (which Walker collects) that puncture painting’s essential flatness. Walker has often used actual mud in his paintings, mixing it with binders and gels to evoke a quality of “realness.” The mud of Seal Point and its anti-picturesque, muck-laden quality at low tide interests him far more than traditionally beautiful aspects of his property. Its wet rawness also seems to trigger personal associations. His father fought in World War I at the battles of The Somme and Passchendaele (where the elder Walker was wounded), muddy bloodbaths where casualties numbered over half a million. Only recently has he allowed lush color and generous expansiveness into the Seal Point paintings, yielding to fierce beauty — an act not of surrender but of ownership. Seal Point is not just an idyllic retreat. It is a place — his place — where long familiar sights and time-washed memories recur with the regularity of the incoming and outgoing tides. After years of “looking out to sea,” John Walker feels that he truly owns his way of seeing Seal Point, a view that is always different, revising and renewing itself.
John Walker: From Seal Point continues at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (21 Winter Street, Rockland, Maine) through October 29.
John Walker and William Corbett, co-author of John Walker: Looking Out to Sea, will sign copies of the book at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art on September 10 between 3 and 5 p.m.