Drawing out: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2014
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Curator and essay writer © Anne Ryan
Text taken from the exhibition catalogue
‘Drawing Out’ Anne Ryan
It is a truism that the earliest marks people make are drawings. Drawing is one of the first forms of expression by which we grasp and make sense of he world around us. It is an intimate act that can reveal our impulse to comprehend, bringing us ever closer to the eye and mind of the artist, and the creative crucible from which artistic ideas flow.
The revival of interest in drawing in the past few decades – as a discipline and discrete practice in contemporary art – has sparked (or perhaps been the result of) a return to drawing in art schools, a plethora of exhibitions and publications, and a renewed focus on it as an area of academic study. There is vigorous, wide-ranging debate on the nature of drawing and its role in artistic creation. To define what drawing is and why it is important has become the fodder for existential arguments – from a return to tradition and order on one side to, on the other, a call to arms where anything goes and drawing can encompass sculpture, performance and the digital. Drawing as a fundamental artistic discipline, a form of research, a conceptual game: whatever the motivation, for many artists surrendering to the urge to draw is as necessary as breathing.
The inaugural Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial does not seek to present a comprehensive survey of contemporary Australian drawing practice in 2014. Rather, it shows the work of ten artists for whom drawing is the core of their practice, and who work in or from the landscape. Their art is extraordinarily diverse and shaped by different conceptual and artistic concerns, but, for each, landscape is the subject that sustains their work and drawing is the means by which they achieve it.
Landscape is a longstanding trope in Australian art and culture and has many connotations, both positive and negative, in contemporary discourse. For the artists included here, the landscape is a source of artistic nourishment, a vehicle for understanding themselves and their place in the world, and a subject that allows them to engage with larger philosophical ideas. For each of them, this tangible subject from the material world – one that they have directly seen, felt and experienced – is essential.
All of these artists draw. For some it is a laboratory for ideas and form, while for others it is the entire object of their work. Through drawing they form their first impressions of a subject, extending it in a variety of methods with different approaches to create a body of works of outstanding beauty, complexity and force.
The subject of John R Walker’s art is also to be found within a small radius around his home in the picturesque town of Braidwood, halfway between Canberra and the South Coast of New South Wales. Encircled by grazing land, the town is situated on a high-altitude granite plain that stretches towards the densely forested embrace of the Great Dividing Range. The air is crisp and the colours of the earth and sky stand in sharp relief in the clear light. The very bones of the landscape are visible along the high stone ridges, snaking roads and waterways that run from the town through the fields into the distance.
Walker settled in Braidwood in 2002, his hew life a decided contrast to his suburban upbringing and beginnings as an artist in Sydney. He began to focus almost exclusively on his immediate environment, consolidating a focus on landscape that had been emerging in his work since the late 1990s. Braidwood’s ancient mountain ranges and forests tell an epic tale of geological change in parallel with a more recent history written in the gracious Georgian grid of the town’s wide veranda-lined streets and colonial-era land grants that cleared and demarcated the land. Networks of erosion gullies scar the earth surrounding the town and speak of its agricultural past and present, a slow evolution interrupted by a brief flowering of prosperity and development in the 1850s with the discovery of gold.Walke finds traces of activity, both Indigenous and European, everywhere in the landscape. Relics such as roads, fence lines, dams and other detritus suggest narratives that are inextricably influenced by human occupation beyond the far older transformative forces of geology and nature.
The act of drawing is a form of thinking for Walker, and has been a daily practice for decades. As he says: ‘Drawing is the beginning and end of everything I do’. His drawings have a significant impact on his paintings, the latter following concentrated periods of intensive drawing and the best of which display a significant debt to the compositional definition and structural underpinning of the drawn line. For Walker, working in front of the subject, or in the studio shortly after he has experienced it, is imperative: ‘for me, the defining characteristic of drawing…would be the relative lack of premeditation – [the] immediacy of response -…rather than anything about mediums [or] materials’. Instead of trying to capture a conventional ‘scene’, he attempts to describe a narrative of experience: what it is to take a walk through a particular site in the bush, along a ridge, or down a road. The process of walking around, looking, forming an image in the mind and then depicting it is, he says, the ‘heart of thinking, [of] being aware. It’s actually about being aware of being aware’.
The physical act of drawing is inseparable from the thought behind an image; Walker describes it as a ‘mind-body process’ or ‘oneness’ that he first experienced watching artist Peter Upward draw and paint in the 1970s, and which is a consequence of continuous practice and openness to spontaneity and intuition. As Walker says: ‘The act itself is thinking’.
Drawing is a way for Walker to make sense of his world, which he explores on foot or by bicycle, returning to familiar locations for the particular qualities they offer and as a necessary stimulus to draw and paint, undisturbed. Often features take time to reveal themselves – such as the diversity of plant life, or small objects lying around – and require return visits. From high in the hills around town to dense forest glades in the surrounding bushland, erosion gullies etched into the earth or even the decrepit shed in his neighbour’s backyard, each of Walker’s chosen locations is an occasion for close observation. Along with more subtle markers of place, he is often attracted to junk, including old farm equipment or dumped cars, tangles of rusty wire and clumps of noxious weeds – ugly intrusions into the landscape that speak of human indifference to nature.
‘John R Walker’ Anne Ryan
John R Walker is attracted to boundaries and borders that mark and define the landscape – points of transition that include natural divides like gullies and creeks, and constructed ones, such as roads and fence lines. Little River Road, Thursday morning 2011 is a ten-part drawing of a favourite route the artist takes for bike rides along a quiet local road out of his hometown of Braidwood, on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, towards the village of Mongarlowe to the north-east. The cleared land – some of it cultivated, some of it wild – stretches out on either side of the road towards the distant ranges. Walk has been aptly described as an ‘episodic artist’, preferring formats that allow an ‘unfolding’ of an idea, or of seeing over time from multiple angles and distances, as reflected in the series shown here. He has drawn the landscape as he experienced it on his bike: in short glimpses, the unifying motifs being the horizon and the road, coalescing and dividing the terrain as it changes along the route.
Untitled 2010 depicts a small, swampy pond on the southern side of Mount Gillamatong, a partly wooded peak on the edge of town that Walker frequently visits to draw. The views from the mountain are far-reaching and spectacular, but in this work he focuses on a more modest subject, looking towards the earth to a site that manifests the cycles of the seasons and climate in its changing appearance. As Walker explains: ‘It has lots of sedges, reeds [and] frogs, but a few years ago it was very dry, a sense of “bones” was never too far away’. Walker’s relationship with his subject is intimate, with a familiarity born of repeated visits and close observation. Similarly, The Darling River – near Capon shearing shed 2013 depicts the parched channel of a river in drought, its water at only a quarter of its usual flow and dropping. Says Walker: ‘The extravagance of a river that sometimes is enormous and yet in most years is barely more than a deep empty trench was visceral.’
Unlike the trench depicted in Darling River, which is a naturally occurring feature caused by the action of the river, many of the deep erosion trenches around Braidwood area a consequence of past gold-mining activity. Now littered with detritus, there trenches scar the landscape – although some, as seen in Walker’s work Chain of ponds, Gillamatong Creek 2013, have been restored to their pre-mining state, with small ponds interspersed by swampy ground.
Walker uses mediums that enable him to work quickly, such as gouache or ink applied with a brush or pen directly onto a sheet of paper or sketchbook page (including the unfolding sheets of Chinese concertina-style books). Gouache is particularly useful for its immediacy and directness in drawing from the subject, but also for its richness and surface intensity.
Of Gouache Walker says: ‘I love the lumpiness of it…its got a lot of pigment density. Even when it’s knocked back it still has a deep echo quality to it, like the deep notes of an organ.’ While the gouache, in turns lumpy or fluid, takes on the forms of the things he is depicting, the open vistas and far horizons of the landscape – shaped by the topography and interspersed with the objects that catch the artist’s eye – are echoed in Walker’s use of negative space in the untouched surface of the paper, as well as his notational mark-making.
With the barest of means, and with the speed and spontaneity that comes from long practice and persistence, Walker conveys multiple narratives of centuries in drawings that reveal the rich complexity and boundless possibilities of a very particular place.
Works in the exhibition:
Little River Road, Thursday morning 2011
The Darling River – near Capon shearing shed 2013
Chain of ponds, Gillamatong Creek 2013
 Ftnt15 in essay. Walker tends to work within a 25 km radius of the town; John R Walker in conversation with the author, Braidwood 15 October 2013.
 Ftnt 16 in essay. Walker’s interest in environmental history informs his work; see Tom Griffiths, Forest of ash: an environmental history, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001, in regard to the human relationship with the mountain ash forests of Victoria.
 Ftnt 17 in essay. ‘I have literally drawn since I can remember.’ John R Walker, phone interview with the author, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 18 in essay. Walker, phone interview, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 19 in essay. John R Walker, email to the author, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 20 in essay. Walker, phone interview, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 21 in essay. Walker, phone interview, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 22 in essay. ‘There’s a piece of plum wood forest, Antarctic rainforest, east of me. It’s hard to find, the marker for branching off through the side to get to this place is a small rock in the fork of a tree about six feet off the ground. Most would walk past it, but if you look for it you see it straight away. It’s unmistakably human. You get your eye in, or something.’ Walker, phone interview, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 1 in essay. See Andrew Sayers, ‘On Doughboy Hill’, in Bradley Hammond & Andrew Sayers, Terroir: big land pictures, Orange Regional Gallery, Orange, NSW, 2014, //issu.com/utopiaartsydney/docs/orange_catalgoue (accessed 12 May 2014).
 Ftnt 2 in essay. John R Walker, email to the author, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 3 in essay. Walker, email, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 4 in essay. John R Walker, phone interview with the author, 31 March 2014.
 Ftnt 5 in essay. This kind of mark making is evidence of Walker’s interest in traditional Chinese painting. As he says, ‘my favourite thing to do…is decidedly Chinese – there is something about nice long paper and a lovely, touchy, springy brush, kneeling, a cup of tea – it has an immediacy and touch about it that is the best.’ Sean O’Brien, ‘John R Walker: journey through landscape’, podcast interview, S H Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 9 May 2008; transcript in Art Gallery of New South Wales artist files.