‘Experiencing the Land’, Simeon Kronenberg

‘Experiencing the Land’, Simeon Kronenberg

Asian Art News v.12 n.2 March/April 2002, pp. 74-75 

The destruction of the land has generated as many political statements as it has artistic, with many artists often confusing the two. John R Walker does not confuse the issues. As an accomplished painter he clearly loves the land he depicts in his recent series of Bundanon landscapes, leaving viewers to make up their own minds about the state of the land.

The Australian painter John R Walker is a dedicated bush rambler, an artist who passionately experiences the terrain through which he hikes. As a result his paintings reflect the very intensity and directness of his love of nature and are dedicated to an honesty in recording it. His work is not the result of any studio-defined, culturally abstracted notion of landscape as such, but reflects instead the very particular kind of visual concentration, where he brings to his immediate subject the experience of the bush and his walking in it – and through it. This has developed over an extended period of time, through careful, almost obsessive observation, recognition, and recording, where each long walk becomes another element in an ongoing and profound meditation on nature, the natural world and its sometimes clash with the urban fringe. Indeed, he expresses a profound tension, which exists at the core of the work and is expressed in the paintings that inevitably follow. The vitality and force of the paintings is fuelled by a vigorous and confident apprehension of detail, only possible as a result of close attention. The intense ‘looking’ is translated into paint, through an ability to suggest whole tracts of bush and (at times) degraded land and sky using the simplest means. Like a Zen master, Walker is able to proclaim and define his world, either close up or distant, in only a few economical brushstrokes. The intense observation over so many years has paid off in an ability to ‘get it down’. The result is vigorous and emotional mark-making of the highest order.

In the painting Shoalhaven Ridge (2001), Walker undertook an ambitious project, to record his experiences while traversing the Shoalhaven landscape, already made famous by Arthur Boyd in a series of paintings based on the terrain surrounding his Bundanon property. Walker describes the land in a nine-panelled, narrative work that acknowledges the Boyd paintings, but remains unmistakably that of a very different artist, one for whom a narrative is contained in the very structure of the work, which, interestingly enough, is read from right to left. The painting is not in any sense designed to be a panorama, instead, each panel is a chapter in the story of the walk, either examining a close up view if a treed and scrubby rock face or a more distant perspective of horizon line and sky, smudged with dark smoke or cloud and dense bush.

Images repeat themselves in the painting as visual leitmotifs designed to provide rhythm and reverberation. However, unlike Boyd, who often used the landscape essentially as a potent frame for metaphoric drama and mythical context, Walker is content to allow the bush to speak in its own terms. In his work, it is a subject in and of itself, where in the final panel the pristine and beautiful bush gives way to the edges of a compromised terrain. The imperative here is an ecological awareness, couched as a warning.

In the painting Hollow Tree (2001) Walker also references the work of Arthur Boyd. This large work depicts a dramatically hollowed-out tree discovered by the artist at Bundanon. The artist painted the first version of the picture very quickly – in an attempt to suggest the life force and vitality of his ancient organism. The result is a painting of great iconic power. However, the painting’s genesis is in the Arthur Boyd painting The Queen’s Deer currently displayed in the Bundanon property. This stark, almost brutal painting is of a flayed animal, hung upside down and marked by a huge gash that reveals the intestines of the beast. Walker’s tree, like the intestines of the deer, is also opened up for us to wonder at. However, Walker points out that while the hollowing threatens  the strength of the tree, it also allows room for nesting places. Native animals provide vital nutrients, through their droppings, that invigorate the tree and keep it alive, despite the damage done to it. The tree stands then as a testament to the powers of nature to survive and heal itself and to the balance between destruction and survival. Nature here is presented without sentimentality, but for what it is, a force that is in constant search of equilibrium.

Walker, born in 1957 in Sydney and graduated from Alexander Mackie School of Art in 1978, presents a deeply realised sense of place, where repeated rhythms, images and colours describe a terrain made available to the viewer in potent and gestural paint that in itself reflects the life it represents. The artist’s eye is drawn inexorably to the details in the land, to the particular green of wet grass or the occasional white of a cloud or the moody vastness of somber sky, rather than to any literary or even humanist allusions. His concern is to match his immediately felt experience of the bush and sky in the reality of paint and surface, to provide for he viewer a way of seeing that is never doctrinaire but nonetheless demanding and urgent. Here, the tension between the actuality of place and its representation in paint is made tangible and the viewer is encouraged to experience the place, too, along with the artist, to feel its animation and to see its peculiarities. Of course, narrative work such as this is unfashionable today, made suspect by modernism. Nonetheless, the artist remains essentially a narrative painter, one for whom the walk is a story and the story has to do with the bush and the urban edges of our country, where there is an almost squalid glamour to be seen and painted. His concern with the edges of things, where ‘civilisation’ meets nature in Australia (those often desolate and ugly places where machinery rusts, weeds grow, animals spoil, and humans collide) is represented in the work, in its varied intensity and haptic apprehensions.

Walker’s understanding of the Australian bush is not then as a subject for the picturesque. He does not see the terrain as necessarily beautiful, but rather as a kind of changing and sometimes threatened (and threatening) organic whole, which repudiates any cozy notions to do with attractiveness and companionability. In that sense then he owes  more to the painters of the sublime tradition rather than to say, Australian impressionists. However, any implied sublime is very much subverted because of his determination to deal with the reality of his subject-matter. If the paintings, art times, take off in swoops of light and energy, suggesting perhaps transcendence, they are equally rooted (through applied observation) in the real of the chaotic and squalid. Like Courbet, Walker wants the actuality of the world to be expressed, indeed ‘described’ accurately. This is, unfashionable enough, an heroic quest – wrestling as it does with a kind of art that takes no quarter. It is fundamentally connected to the real and the metaphoric is denied.

Many artists today seem drive to explore the degradation of the land. They see an appalling ecological devastation surrounding us. Walker is one of those for whom the ecological threat is criticial. However, his view is never sentimental nor indeed muffled by any sloppy optimism. Nor is his a nostalgic or backward-looking perception.  He has no notion of a pristine past to be rediscovered; in his view humans have always interfered with and degraded the land. It is now a question of degree and containment. As such, Walker is a realist in both a political and artistic sense, expressing an acceptance to do with the contemporary condition, which is described with remarkable precision in the paintings. Their very contemporaneousness is fundamentally to do with an insistence on the real – the difficulty we all have in facing the damage being done to the land we inhabit. The bush Walker paints is also layered in both human and geological terms and the sites we experience are only the tip of the much more ancient history of human intervention, biological adaptation, and geological disturbance. The bush remains a fitting subject for a painter determined to paint his particular experience.


© Simeon Kronenberg