John R Walker: Dry Land Paintings
6 – 27 November 2004 Utopia Art Sydney
Catalogue essay by Belinda Cotton
Bedervale, Badja and Monga: “The story of our future, like that of our past, will be etched into the earth we tread”.[i]
Moving away from Sydney became an imperative for John R Walker. No longer could the urban environment sustain him – the need for an immediate physical connection with the bush, more space and freedom was essential. The search for the right spot took him to the Hunter Valley, Hill End, Bundanon and finally Braidwood. Once there he quickly became enmeshed in the Braidwood community and town life. Here, he had the ability to access the forests, reserves and parks in which he loves to walk. He quickly recognised a sense of belonging and being in ‘his Country’. Contact with the bush and walking through it, climbing to vantage points to experience the horizon and relish in the special illusion of infinity peculiar to the Australian bush energised Walker and gave rise to his latest series of landscapes from Braidwood, Badja and Monga.
‘Bedervale’ is a privately owned National Trust property on the outskirts of the NSW town of Braidwood close to where he lives. On the rise of the hill leading into the property, Walker has set up his painting table under the protection of tall pine-trees that have provided respite from wind for decades. From there he is able to study and sketch without interruption.
The surrounding country has the rounded undulations characteristic of the metal-rich Braidwood granite that gave rise to the region’s rich alluvial gold deposits. While not obvious now, gold fossicking abounded in the late 1800s.[ii] Extraction processes became more invasive and larger mining enterprises utilised methods that resulted in erosion of creek beds and gravel banks in a bid to extract the gold within. Rivers, dams and creeks were in some cases diverted to the operational sites of miners, which in time became replaced by timber workers in the early 1900s. Years on, the lack of trees and gullies carved into the ground of the immediate area show the full effect of these practices. Competing demands of industry combined with seasonal, climatic and drought conditions have produced a land under stress – degraded, dessicated and struggling for equilibrium.[iii]
This is the country to which John R Walker now belongs. He walks extensively throughout these forests and local areas, tracing and embedding landmarks, ecology, history and geology into his psyche and giving expression to it in paint. His knowledge of the region is already extensive and always added to. Nothing escapes the intensity of his scrutiny and all becomes innately his own, rendered with uncompromising honesty. He faithfully records in paint which is revealed to him from his exploration of the country.
Walker’s vision of the landscape is not comforting or safe. Both he and his work remain resolutely unencumbered by any moralising – admitting that he ‘can only paint what is in front of me’.[iv] And he does so faithfully. Much of his ‘Bedervale’ series aerially maps the property and reveals a shorthand of ‘metal markers…glances left and right’.[v] Walker pushes the tactile quality of paint and colour to guide the eye through, across and into the landscape in much the same way he would pointing out features along the journey he’s undertaking. He shifts and twists space, altering planes of vision within his canvases and builds contrasting the flatness of his canvas’s ground with eroded gullies that are like suppurating gashes often tinged with toxic greens of phosphate fed algae at their bases. These gullies inhabit his paintings barely confined by the tracery of fence-lines, futilely defending against what seems an overwhelming inevitability of encroachment. From this aerial perspective, Walker ‘zooms in’ to capture specific features within his wider representations of the land. Ghosts of the past or remnants of old trees frequent his works – sobering signs of an emerging biodiversity in the area – a new, much drier and harsher period supplanting the benign one we’ve been experiencing in recent history. Gnarled dead giants of trees weathered grey are iconic indicators of continued degradation of the land, pyramids of battered tyres become agricultural middens of old farming practices; dried dams with tessellated bases become sentinels of a recent past, present and future.
The extremes of Bedervale are slightly ameliorated in the Badja works that are certainly much lusher and incorporate glimpses of water from the meandering Big Badja River, a tributary of the Murrumbidgee. The Badja Swamp Nature Reserve is a respite for Walker who visits the area regularly to paint.It is part of a large complex of swamps forming what is known as an ‘upland peat land’ and over the last year he has witnessed the land slowly drying.
The overt distress and intensity of the land in the Bedervale works is not present in the Badja works. The drying is hinted at in his palette and interplay of devices seen in the Bedervale series; the bush, the swamp and the fence line. There is a softness in the mood that allows a movement through the bush using the interplay of colour to lift the eye up from the bush floor through the trees into the canopy. What at first seems abstract, the motif of the fence line is a key device in this flexing of the surface perspective pushing and exploring notiions of boundaries created by human activity or natural forces such as incisions through riverine flow.
In its singularity, the portrait of the filmy fern becomes the counterpoint to Walker’s ‘Bedervale’ series. Found in a hidden valley relatively untouched and unaffected by human intervention, Monga becomes a refuge – a hidden or lost valley. An old growth temperate rainforest, Monga ‘provides a glimpse of our time as part of the Gondwanan super continent. Lush rainforest gullies filled with ancient pinkwoods and moss covered tree ferns surrounded by tall eucalypts.’[vi] Rare and endangered plant species from another time such as the Dicksonia Antarctica (tree ferns) and Enchryphia moorei (plumwood) have managed to survive. Even so, the tide of climate change is being felt here where the filmy fern is very vulnerable to drying out due to too many hot days.
All three areas when observed together can be linked to possibilities of causality but whether due to man or nature, Walker makes no such claims rather remains pragmatic. The only hint of opinion or moral stand is a suggestion of bewilderment at why, with all this evidence before us, we don’t act towards saving our water reserves and therefore our existence. This is only ever revealed in conversation as the driving imperative for his is to get the work onto canvas and paper. He gets down his ideas quickly and precisely with gouache on paper in situ – capturing a freshness and energy that being in the landscape gives him. These works while fully resolved, become the ‘connecting’ or reference point for the larger works in which he is experiencing the subject. Again the fence line or line of trees is used to move into the works and drive the eye from the edge to the centre as well as to the boundary line of raw bush and cleared land. A similar rhythm and focus is devoted to the larger canvases, where the elasticity of his medium responds to the demands of the bush, speed and the work itself. Walker’s energy is transferred through the brushstroke and captured in the tactility of paint and colour as he fulfils the imperative to paint what he sees and get it down onto paper and canvas. He leaves interpretation, judgement and response to others.
© Belinda Cotton 2004
[i] Merrill Findlay, Climate change at Lake Mungo, Habitat Australia, 1990 (Revised March 2004) website: ww.merrillfindlay.com – downloaded 15.5.04
[iii] Info from website: http//www.argylecountry.com.au/towns/braidwood.html
[iv] John R Walker in conversation with the author, Utopia Art Sydney, 15.5.04
[vi] Glen Klatovsky, Monga Forest Rescue – Media Briefing 9.7.01. The Wilderness Society, Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Australia 11.7.01. website: http//www.nccnsw.org.au/forest/news/media/20010709_resesc.html