I sat for long periods over several weeks while John R Walker ‘painted’ my portrait. It was entered for the Archibald Prize, was accepted and was described in the Conservator’s report as ‘oil painting with cigarette butt’ (in the frenetic action of John’s endless consumption of fags – always rollies – one had lodged itself in the region of impasto next to my deftly depicted left knee: and remains there to this day). Edmund Capon saw me at the gallery and commented, “Bill, I see Johnno has done a painting of you looking like a sticky date pudding”. The painting did not win the Archibald, but surely should have: could it be the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Trustees were deterred by the butt?
When you sit for a portrait – which I have done, cautiously seldom – you have time, the occasion to contemplate an artist practising his craft; a rare quasi-anthropological insight afforded few. The many hours over several days I sat in Walker’s former Sydney studio on the Parramatta Road at that time provided just such occasion to form a special kind of cumulative impression of a gifted individual’s mode of practice, one that lent vantage to what had become an ongoing, informing association with this artist, whom I both like and admire.
The studio was one of those well-used, creativity-charged spaces that bore extreme traces of its inhabitant’s activity; the floor encrusted with paint, red wine and tea patina and other spontaneous droppings, the walls marked similarly midst various pinned cuttings, sketches and photographs, and stacks of paintings in progress, some facing, some facing away from the walls. The Walker palette was a large glass table, piled high with satiny mounds of oil paint, the spectrum marshalled irregularly along its erupting edges. The irreplaceable odour of gum turps wafted and hovered like an invisible, permeating presence as our subject – not me, the artist – darted back and forth, loaded brushes in hand delivering intuitive placements of mark and striation to the gradually emerging, disappearing and re-emerging apparition of the painted image. It was like observing a seasoned dancer, self-absorbed but deliberate in every action, or, perhaps, a fencer, the foil or epee the brush, darting its diverse array of chromatic thrusts and parries from a variety of angles. In retrospect I am reminded of the late Harold Rosenberg’s remark that the painting, the painted surface, is not really so much the ” … place where the mind records its contents – rather than itself the ‘mind’ through which the painter thinks by charging itself with paint.” Certainly the characteristics of intuition and suspension are paramount in Walker’s distinctively tactile, evolutionary process of visual realisation. The painting emerges, the sum total of extensive manipulative dialogue between the maker and the made as the sole extant site of reflexive transformation.
John R Walker paints such occasional portraits, often figure compositions, though I think his great contribution is through his activity in and of the landscape. It is where the better part of his thought is concentrated and where his human and cultural understanding finds full register. It is also the arena to his concentration where over the past twenty-plus years he has realised a major artistic corpus.
When one thinks of the tradition of ‘best practice’ Australian painting, as painting – not as rendered illustration – one inevitably envisages a pantheon composed of such able forebear figures as Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Hans Hysen, Grace Cossington-Smith and certainly, nearer our own time, the splendid Fred Williams, a gifted transfigurer of Australian landscape as archetypal motif. Williams’ transfigurations affected by means of tangible, incisively executed deftness, are akin to Walker’s, with a directness of touch in an intuitive, sensory manner of painterly production. Where Walker differs from all of these, with minor exception, is in his understanding of the intrinsic, indivisibly connected dimension of painting as an implicit container of geological and social history; as the expressive register of the landscape’s life.
To discuss the landscape with John R Walker is to be taken on a long and winding journey: through the layered terrain of forms and meanings in Aboriginal life and creation, through the times of unwitting colonial degradation, cultural ignorance, through the disasters of institutionalised stupidity, post-urban ravage, and adaptation. Walker presents a sophisticated comprehension of the real issues and limitations in the now beleaguered ecological world; of the landscape’s living societal as well as natural dimensions and its persistence in decay as in recovery. His knowledge of the Australian land, like his knowledge of Australian and European history, is consummate and his art is richly compounded within the many-layered field of this informing awareness. However, thus said, while Walker approaches the landscape – ‘his country’ – intellectually, from its reality as a complex societal-ecological phenomenon, he is foremost and fundamentally the creature ‘painter’: the observer, the alchemic wielder-contemplator of light reflective and absorptive matter in the service of the as yet to be discovered configuration. Like Baudelaire he does not grant his art ” … the sterile function of imitatory nature”, but strives rather to provide a transfiguring vantage, a “new world” of seeing through the spontaneous informing means of hand and eye, of intuitional painting.
It is not coincidental that John R Walker exhibits in an art gallery like Utopia Art Sydney, which is largely devoted to the representation of works by indigenous Australian artists. His relation to the landscape is in many respects similar, conterminous in some. It is both motif and narrative. It is about actual places, favourite terrain or country, sites of respectful contemplation; in its redefinition, as art, it is constituted of innumerable intuitively deliberated marks, lines and areas, as observed and registered from shifting points of vantage. Of the ‘Western’ painters I know, Walker has greater empathy and knowledge of Aboriginal art and its cultural and ecological traditions than most. In many respects he is a beneficiary of this; a cultural hybrid; but above all it is the common bond of informed respect of each for the complex reality of given place that compounds this affinity that so informs his sense of artistic purpose.
In recent years Walker and his partner, the art historian and critic Anne Sanders, have lived in Braidwood, not far from Canberra where Sanders is currently pursuing her doctoral researches at the Australian National University. Walker divides his time between the new, spacious studio to the rear of their 1850s townhouse, daily forays into the surrounding terrain and long periods in the studio. It has been a period of continuous observation, experimentation and consolidation. It is the first period of such extended exposure to one place and terrain in Walker’s working life, his earlier landscape work being largely drawn from diverse forays from Sydney into different parts of eastern coastal Australia. At first sight the country around Braidwood appears undulating, subtle compared to the more dramatic terrain of many of his rainforest and other landscape subjects, yet on closer contact it is far more varied and complex and the subject of a number of Walker’s recent works is centred on Bedervale, pertinently including a nearby erosion gully – nothing excluded – one of the least idyllic places where there is an accumulation of discarded cars dating back to the 1950s.
In relation to the kind of experience of place in time in his most recent works, Walker talks about an increasing sense of narrative, of ‘something emblematic of the post-colonial experience’ of Australia as a country. But he also talks with experiential wisdom of immersing himself, ‘following ones sympathies’ through the infinity of possibilities within the landscape and the inevitability of who you are and therefore what you do, eschewing any leaning towards a theoretically-based approach in artistic practice. Yet Walker’s practice is singular and it is intellectually rigorous, balanced between the direct experience of working with knowing observational spontaneity midst the subject land and in the liberating discipline of the studio, where the notation, the idea and the artist’s human cultural awareness consolidate into works of incisive visual power. There is a significant element of the redemptive in this, and sheer visual desire, wherein Walker has created works of enduring importance, extending our awareness of both the form and the meaning of ‘landscape’.
The current exhibition is of works on paper, both recent and past, among which there are a number of calligraphic works – which usually start out as gouaches – either on archival paper or Chinese fold out books. The medium of gouache applied to paper is of its essence spontaneous, the mixing and application of colour a matter of intuitive response, and it is Walker’s most consistent continuing method of research. The portability and directness of this means has enabled him to amass a comprehensive array of instantaneous impressions, observations and poetic notations as well as many paintings complete in themselves, many of which are among his most consummately developed works.
William Wright 21st September 2005
© William Wright