Site: an essay by Chloe Watson

Site: an essay by Chloe Watson

As in many of his paintings, Walker marks sites of human activity within the landscape – wire mesh, rusted pieces of tin, the remnants of once-inhabited structures, nestled amidst gum trees and stretches of grass. Walker’s attuned eye, so familiar with the look and feel of this landscape, notices signs of past presences in every unusual depression in the earth, or tree that does not quite belong.  For instance, Walker remembers a moment of revelation: walking along a very old footpath through the bush, he suddenly noticed a rock in the branch of a tree and realised that “somebody had put it there to signify something”. What did that rock mean? Who was it left for? At another site, a gigantic metal cauldron sits in a cleared space in the bush, a deep rusty red brown. It was once the property of an eccentric Greek man, long dead, who lived at that place for thirty or forty years. His home is now remnants – a reminder that our structures too will crumble and rust. Walker weaves the almost glimpsed stories of these traces in his own painterly narrative.

Site’s horizontal stretch of canvas is not panoramic in scope; Walker is not attempting to reproduce the exact appearance of an objective landscape. Perspective is shifting and elusive across the four panels, each notably without the presence of a horizon line. We are taken on a journey that enters into the terrain. The topography is not distant but enacted as our eyes travel across the painting, making sense of its expressive marks. At the same time, Walker himself seems to think in paint, to work through his felt experience of place through the intuitive layering of brush strokes – “wandering and wondering”. Walker intends his viewer to move across the panels from right to left, as in Asian visual and written compositions.

“Site” is a small, short, simple word that has complex connotations. In John R Walker’s hands a site is at once the sense of a particular place, portrayed through views that flirt with sight, and an archaeological dig – a layered landscape encompassing immediate histories and deep time. For Walker, the over seven metre long, four-panel work Site (the largest he has yet painted) is a picture “about wandering and wondering”. It is a composite image that evokes a complex narrative of rambling walks around the bush and paddocks at the outskirts of his hometown, Braidwood. Details emerge like clues upon the painted surface – now smoothly washed in the subtlest neutral tones, now densely loaded with textured, gestural strokes, now delicately tracing the honeycomb pattern of fencing wire.

At another level, there is an affinity between this multi-panel composition and Walker’s Chinese concertina book drawings. In Andrew Sayer’s words: “the landscape is regarded as a whole, yet, at the same time, it is a journey through motifs – an unfolding”. Over some books a landscape is investigated in episodic views, in others a single view stretches and contracts as the pages are turned, or the book is opened. Walker specifically drew my attention to Mesh, a composition that unfolds over 25 paper panels of undulating black line-work. Stood upright and unfolded it is like a zigzagging paper fence-line.

The fence – wire mesh and wooden posts – is a motif repeated in Site. Walker likened this visual trope of wire mesh to weaving – something like the act of weaving together a painting, or a story for that matter. In the first panel to the right, fence post and gum tree emerge at angles from whimsically floating wire filigree, and return again to dense scrub. The man-made is woven back into the natural by Walker’s scrawling brush, the difference between fence post and tree is almost indiscernible. In the left most panel, a fence line tracks vertiginously up the field, breaking the canvas into planes of subtle colour.

Walker’s interest in fences is paralleled by his interest in containers, yards and sheds.  All express a fascination with lines; the relationship between line and boundary, line and contour; the fence-line and the line in paint. To mark a line is an act of signification. This is mine. This is yours. This is an object. This is the space around it. Yet those divides aren’t ever as solid as they seem, particularly in Walker’s shimmering tapestries. Lines woven together become stronger, but they also let light through the gaps. It is as much about the space between things as the things themselves.

Thus, a site is formed in the interaction of vast washes with thick calligraphic marks. Man’s marks are inseparable from the natural forms and spaces they are a part of – built out of, in and on. Painterly traces of rusted metal or of slowly rotting stumps hint at time’s narratives within that other timeless boundary, the canvas.

It is fitting to end this text with an extract from the poem “Boundaries” by Judith Wright, another Braidwood artist:

It’s just that we think in limit, form and time.
Only language invents
future and past (now’s gone before it’s said).
What’s I, what’s here?
It’s the whole flow that’s real,
the whole change pouring through the lens of eyes
that first distinguish, then forget distinction;
record the many, then rejoice the all.

© Chloe Watson