JOHN R WALKER: THE ORATUNGA AND BURRA SUITE
Increasingly I think the key to understanding art is to understand it in the context of belief. Here [in John Walker’s art]… we are confronted by a great Easter painting, full of nails, barbs and chains – a bush Bosch, in which the objects in the landscape speak poignantly of tragedy.
Andrew Sayers, 2 July 2015[i]
John Walker’s profound engagement with landscape has been a key to his artistic practice since he moved from Sydney to Braidwood in country New South Wales in December 2002. On one hand he values a forthright painterly approach to his subjects and it comes as no surprise that one of his favourite Australian artists is Sidney Nolan – particularly landscapes such as Riverbend 1964-65 in their sense of direct engagement with place and painting.[ii] However, while he’s not so interested in Nolan’s mythologising, Andrew Sayers has suggested that Walker’s original vision of landscape is indelibly informed by a personal spirituality. In many ways this is a subtle dimension in the work, not separate from a keenly practical, down-to-earth approach to art and daily life. Rather his sense of a transcendent dimension finds resonances with ideas of historian and anthropologist Greg Dening who advocated combining practical studies of the outer world with a series of spiritual engagements based on the exercises prescribed by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1548.[iii] For some time Walker has engaged in daily mediations. Contemplation and a sense of space and time are crucial to his art.
Walker is interested in a deep sense of time; in geology, palaeontology and environmental history in general. In preparation for his visit to Oratunga in South Australia, on the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha people, he did his background research and read voraciously. The best- known paintings of this area are by Hans Heysen (1877-1968) who depicted the rugged ranges and curving hills that felt to him like ‘the bones’ of the landscape itself. These days, as Walker points out, there is far more vegetation – particularly Callitris native pines, along with numerous eroded gullies. ‘All the same, the landscape of the Flinders feels very old’, he says. ‘It has an amazing feeling to it. It also looks as though it could have been designed by an environmental scientist as a teaching model for geology … It is so crisp and clear.’[iv] For Walker the idea of being in the environment is a way of gleaning a sense of possible histories. He favours an explorative, open-ended approach. He recalls a day at Oratunga walking through scrubby bush with his wife Anne Sanders.
We followed the creek down about five or six kilometres. About half way down we boiled the billy and I noticed this shadow on the other side of the valley. It was far enough away … like a rock shelter and it just clicked… there was debris and bits of barbed wire and wire mesh. A bit further down the gully if you look carefully you see petroglyphs, you see circles and arrows carved into the rock; so ultimately this represents a lot of history. There are traces everywhere.
While spending time in Burra south of Oratunga, Walker worked in concertina Chinese albums, the format of which is beautifully suited to the idea of unfolding journeys of discovery. Many of his brush drawings have a miraculous lightness of touch, like those tracing what he described as the ‘Fibonacci rhythms’ of the Callitris pines, dancing in air across the paper. Walker found Burra (a former copper mining town) to be a place of contradictions, conveying the layers of recent history and degradation of the environment while retaining flashpoints of lyrical, delicate beauty. ‘There was an abandoned town like a ruin. While I was in the landscape, I came across mining skips and rusty broken tools … at one point I suddenly realised there was this bare ancient tree and its branches were gently brushing these piles of stones. I recalled an old poem by Basho – a haiku.
I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’[v]
Back in his Braidwood studio big spaces of canvas open up for the distillation in the Oratunga and Burra suite. By this point – after a period of accumulation – the process is akin to poetry and music. In the intuitive unfolding in the studio, space, time and memory coalesce. Walker recalls that the artist Peter Upward was the first to introduce him to Zen calligraphy and the music of John Cage. Music continues to be important to the rhythms of his work, like a Bach fugue ‘endlessly rising’. His brush traces form and feeling. Space becomes air. Passages suggest muddy ground, variously acrid greens meet fleshy pink. We see a rock shelter, an untidy scatter of sticks, logs and debris, spindly lines of trees, a branch suspended in spaciousness, wire mesh suggesting molecular structures.
Walker is interested in resonances between landscape and the body.[vi] In his Oratunga and Burra suite, alizarin blood emanates from barbed wire. He recalls that it ‘just appeared’, like it needed to be there. This open-ended gesture connects with a work that has long been important to him, Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection painted in the 1460s in Sansepolcro, Italy. In this fresco the figure of the risen Christ with a wound in his side, combines stillness with a compressed energy. As Philip Guston noted, there is ‘fervor, grave and delicate in each of Piero’s works’. He also remarked, ‘What we see is the wonder of what is being seen. Perhaps it is the subject of painting itself.’[vii] Walker agrees. He notes that what is revealed in painting is also the mind that made it. It is mind in the broadest sense, engaging with the real and fugitive, the struggle and the transcendent, as one. What is important within and beyond the traces discovered in the environment is the presence of what he has experienced – like an underlying hum – that cannot be explained away. As he says, ‘How do you embody or keep the mystery? If it is totally explainable then you’ve got it wrong.’[viii]
[i] Andrew Sayers’ opening address for John Walker’s exhibition Here I give thanks at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra, curated by Glenn Barkley, 2 July 2017.
[ii] In an interview with the author, 4 May 2017, Walker noted that Nolan’s Riverbend in the ANU Drill Hall Gallery is one of the works he most likes to spend time with when he visits Canberra.
[iii] See an informative essay on Greg Dening, a former Jesuit priest, in Tom Griffiths, The art of time travel: historians and their craft, Black Inc., 2016, p.123
[iv] Interview with Hart, op.cit.
[vi] For instance he talked in an interview with the author about the extraordinary poem by John Donne, Hymn to God, my God, in my sickness.
[vii] Philip Guston, ‘From the archives: Philip Guston on Piero della Francesca,in 1965’, see //www.artnews.com/2017/05/12/from-the-archives-philip-guston-on-piero-della-francesca-in-1965/
posted on 12/5/2017
[viii] Interview with the author, op.cit.