GLASGOW — My first encounter with the Scottish artist Richard Walker was when I went to his exhibition House Paintings at the Alexandre Gallery (November 29, 2012 – January 5, 2013). Measuring around 15 x 20 inches, and done on panels, Walker’s paintings were observations of a darkened room at night. They were made while the artist had a residency at The Haining, a large 18th-century house in Scotland. This is what he said about them in an interview with the painter, Merlin James:
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.
This is what I wrote in my review of the show after citing Walker’s statement:
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.
A few months later, when I knew I would be visiting Glasgow, I contacted Walker to see if I could visit him in his studio. By then, I had dug up as much as I could on his work and was looking forward to meeting him. This is a report of my visit to his studio, which took place one late afternoon near the end of June 2013.
For the past 12 years, Richard Walker has had his studio on the top floor of an old school building, which has become a community center, in a working-class neighborhood. The Kinning Park Complex, as the building is known, was taken over by local residents — who occupied the building for nearly two months — after the city council voted to close it. Run by volunteers, it is a building sorely in need of renovation, as testified to by the blue tarpaulins hanging beneath the exposed slats of Walker’s ceiling. He’s rigged them so that they will collect and hold the rain and not let water get on his paintings, which are on every wall, as well as stacked here and there on the floor.
The recent paintings measure around 19 x 27 inches, noticeably larger than the ones he showed at Alexandre. All of them are views of his darkened studio. Although I knew a bit about how he painted them — they were done in one session — I was curious to learn more.
It seems that Walker stands at a table, working on a smooth, flat surface (Masonite), which lies flat. The only light comes from a data projector, which is attached to his laptop, and the vertical strips of daylight that gets past the blackout curtain. He usually points the data projector at a mirror, which bounces the image onto the wall. Moving the projector just a few inches can change everything, as the light bounces in another direction while the image stretches.
All of the images come from photos Walker has taken with his phone, which often result in something unexpected. In one painting, a red silhouette comes from a photograph he took of his shadow while walking up the stairs of the Glasgow School of Art, which was designed by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The red silhouette, which is against a white rectangle, becomes a foreboding presence that seems to be either entering the room’s darkened space or breaking through the picture plane into the viewer’s actual space. There is an Otherness to the painting, which is present in many of the recent works, a sense that something we can’t quite name is in the room with us.
It seems that after his eyes adjust to the lighting, Walker essentially paints in the dark. He uses a long-handled brush so that he can always see the entire surface when he is painting. He learned to work with an extended handle while painting sets for the Scottish Opera, which he started doing in his 20s, and which he did off and on for twenty years. It was his main and sometimes only source of income. In recent years, Walker has been teaching at the Glasgow School of Art.
According to Walker, he worked under the guidance of the head scene painter, Kelvin Guy:
It was from Guy that I really learned how to paint as well as being directed to poetry, classical music and undiscovered (by me) areas of culture. So it really was like a hands-on, one to one, Post Graduate course. As you can imagine over that time I worked on a lot of operas, but among them were the Ring Cycle directed by Tim Albery and designed by Hildegard Bechtler, Madam Butterfly directed by (now Sir) David McVicar and designed by Yannis Thavoris. A number of good designers, Ezio Frigario, Stewart Laing, Stefanos Lazaridis were also working with the Opera over the period that I was there.
Walker believes the method he learned was Russian in origin. It required that you painted with your brush attached to a long stick while walking on the cloth backdrop. This is how he described it: “Taping the brush to the stick gives you the necessary distance and also prevents backache.” At one point, he drags out a large painting that he did of the opera workshops, in which the shelves on the far wall of the deep space of the room is clearly delineated.
In the studio paintings, Walker uses paint that is very liquid and translucent. Working on a flat surface prevents the paint from running. Also, he has had a long interest in Chinese and Japanese painting, “where the way the brush is held becomes an important part of the outcome.”
By working on the sets of very different operas, Walker learned to paint in a variety of figurative styles. In his work, however, the emphasis is on simple abstract brushstrokes — daubs, dabs, thin vertical strokes and short swaths — that can be read as light, shadow, surface, object or reflection. He seems to be after a state of ambiguity where the eyes must continually adjust and refocus, admit doubt. There is something uncomfortable about this kind of looking where one is never quite sure if something is solid or not.
Walker also works tonally, darkening and thickening the ground so that subtle modulations take place. I was reminded of the background in Edouard Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866” (1866). The connection between the abstract mark and the figural image is Walker’s translation of Asian calligraphic painting into something purely his own. It is James McNeill Whistler without theatrics or affectation — something the American-born Whistler could never let go of. And yet, even as these associations with these 19th-century painters came to me, I never felt that Walker was being nostalgic or looking back.
In Walker’s paintings, you never lose sight of the fact that you are looking at paint (oily stuff), which is often ghostly in appearance — a bit of whitish, pale green or light violet matter floating against a black, seemingly viscous ground. Air and ground, shadow and thing become interchangeable. Even though not all the marks become legible, we intuitively know the artist is not making anything up, reminding us that the eyes cannot always discern what is exactly there, where one s never quite sure of the identity of something or even if it is a thing.
Walker is true to a state of seeing in the darkness, a world where identity and stability are called into question, where what we think is solid might not be after all – a potent metaphor for these changing times.
The subject of Walker’s paintings is the artist’s studio at night. The room is empty and perhaps abandoned. There are pieces of cloth draped over what we take to be easels and tables. Everything is in a state of dishevelment. One can imagine that a thin film of dust has settled over everything. These works are on the opposite end of the great studio paintings of the 19th century – Gustave Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life” (1855) and Henri Fantin-Latour’s “A Studio at Les Batignolles” (1870).
While Courbet and Fantin-Latour did their paintings in the early, formative years of Modernism, helping lay the groundwork for what would follow, Walker knowingly does his views of the studio after the death of painting and the death of the author have been widely accepted. Given this state of affairs, how does the painter proceed? As these paintings suggest, Walker doesn’t believe that the past has yielded everything to the present, much less the future. At the same time, by using a data projector, computer, and images derived from the camera on his telephone, Walker demonstrates that the artist can absorb technological advances into his or her practice without resorting to imitation or parody.
In choosing the artist’s studio as his subject, Walker rejects the view that we are living in a post-studio age where one needs to know how to efficiently and cheaply outsource. Not only has he taken on the challenge inherent in such a view, but he has also pushed back against it. His studio paintings are funereal, elegiac, ghostly, austere, restrained, lush and tactile. He might have to grope around in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean he is defeated. The opposite is closer to the truth. Walker is making a group of paintings that stand firmly on their own, are cognizant of history, and refute received opinion. The beauty of the painting handling is that it isn’t extraneous, but necessary. Every move is meaningful. That’s not a small achievement.