Wang Wei is regarded as the first Chinese poet-painter, famous for his mastery of both painting and writing. As a visual artist his reputation was established by a painting of Wangchuan Villa, an extensive estate he acquired in the year 740. Wang’s celebrated painting was lost long ago, but there remains an extensive body of his poetry, including a cycle of poems evoking twenty sites in the grounds of Wangchuan Villa. These poems, perhaps originally inscribed on the lost painting, have a remarkable and compressed descriptive power that is exemplified in the following two examples:
No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.
It seems appropriate to introduce John R. Walker’s landscapes with the words of a Tang Dynasty painter because the artist is a great admirer of Chinese painting. Not only this, he lives in a landscape of mountains, rivers and clouds where boulders burst from the pastures like rock arrangements in a Chinese garden. Looking at Walker’s paintings and drawings we can feel the presence of a Chinese aesthetic in their open spaces and the suggestive variety of the artist’s brushstroke. Moreover, the artist invites us to experience the landscape in an episodic way (co-incidentally reading right to left).
Yet there is a very particular reason why Wang Wei seems to me to be the right poet to introduce John R. Walker. Wang’s Wangchuan Villa cycle captures the character of a tract of country by focusing with great precision upon individual localities and events within it. Similarly, Walker has an intense engagement with the specific character of micro-landscapes within a broader and typical (one could say typically Australian) landscape. He expresses, in his art, the experience of journeying through and between the loci where he has discovered and internalised something that we recognise as emotional resonance.
Since he moved to Braidwood in December 2002, the artist has become engaged in the distinctive landscape that surrounds the town. Walker’s environment encompasses a diverse geography that has been shaped by underlying geology and climatic change, and by histories of human activity – burning, digging, mining, farming, dam-building, roadmaking, fencing. These ancient and modern histories have left the country with marks of varying scale and the inscriptions of tracks, fence-lines and roads. The nineteenth-century settler-history of the area has also given us a richly evocative set of place-names – Ballalaba, Bombay, Gillamatong, Jembaicumbene.
To walk around Braidwood with the painter is to understand how the country can be experienced as a series of contiguous landscapes, each having a unique character yet all within the compass of a few hundred square kilometres. In the broadest terms it is possible to divide his environment into four areas: the Shoalhaven River on the Bombay Road, to the west of Braidwood; the open paddocks of Bedervale on the eastern outskirts of the township; the wet forest at Monga; and the close, steeply sided gullies at Tantulean Creek.
The Shoalhaven River, with a catchment area of 73,000 square kilometres, takes an ancient course from its source to the south. As it cuts its way across the Braidwood plateau it reveals a complex geology that has defined the local topographies.
The unique geological character of the country has fired Walker’s imagination. He says:
The region of Braidwood is an odd combination, geologically speaking. Braidwood itself is the centre of a large granite plateau which is edged by the uplifted and very old metamorphosed rocks of the Mongarlowe–Monga escarpment on the east and by the remnants of the Bombay volcanics on the west (the remnants of what was once a Himalayan-sized mountain chain).
Walker first became involved with the landscape of the Shoalhaven when he undertook a residency at Bundanon on the lower reaches of the river. The former home of Arthur Boyd (now a place where creators in all disciplines can work for periods of up to six weeks), Bundanon is situated on the Shoalhaven where it widens towards its mouth. Walker spent two residency stints there. The first was in winter 2001; the second in 2002, by which time he and his partner Anne Sanders had already made the decision to move from urban Sydney to the township of Braidwood.
Talking of his own Shoalhaven paintings, Arthur Boyd mused that ‘all Australian paintings are in some way a homage to Tom Roberts.’ This statement reveals the way in which Boyd saw his own work in relation to the tradition of Australian landscape painting. Likewise, Walker consciously engaged with the Boydian tradition in his Bundanon paintings – one of the 2001 paintings is significantly titled Six Days in Bundanon and I Give Thanks to Boyd. Referring to his engagement with the earlier generation of landscape painters, Walker talks of his admiration for Arthur Streeton’s great painting of 1891, Fire’s On, and the way in which his experience of that painting – a vertical slice through sky, olive trees and the blinding glare of pink, purple and yellow rocks – sparked in him a recognition of the possibilities of painting the Australian landscape.
Yet, at Bundanon, the Shoalhaven’s grandiose sweep is markedly different from the shallow upper reaches of the river near Braidwood where it cuts through granite country. In his paintings of the river Walker focuses on the banks with their distinctive white and pink rocks and the trees that have established themselves in their interstices.
Quaternary Gully, a triptych, embodies some of these geomorphic conditions around the upper Shoalhaven. The composition is a complex of deep ‘V’ shapes that seems to narrate the interplay of natural forces which has created the landscape – geological upheaval stretching from the extremely ancient to our present, the aeons-old action of water, the breaking down by vegetation.
The Quaternary is the most recent epoch in geological time. The title of Quaternary Gully refers to a poem by Judith Wright, ‘For the Quaternary Age’:
Quaternary Age that made me in your dream,
fertile and violent, swung from ice to heat
to flood to famine – what you’ve grafted in! …
In the poem Wright shifts her attention from a panorama of landscape (looking down above the China Sea) to the condition within herself. Walker took his cue from Wright’s imagining the massive change – from ice to fire – across the geological epoch in which we evolved.
In the first (right-hand) panel of Quaternary Gully, lichen-covered fence posts appear as a reminder of the very recent history that has also transformed the landscape around Braidwood. At Bombay, one of Walker’s favourite painting locations on the Shoalhaven, the landscape around the river has been created as much by human activity as by natural forces. Nineteenth-century mining has left great mounds of broken rock on the terraces above the river. It is not an unusual sight. Around Braidwood the traces of early mining activity are everywhere – changed watercourses and the rubble of turned-over ground. Maps of the area reveal the number of abandoned mines and diggings across the plateau and in the surrounding mountains. Such places have long become overgrown with trees and undergrowth but they are clear to the artist’s eye and are facts in Walker’s landscapes.
Bedervale, more than any other site around the town, has given Walker a landscape created by the interaction of topography and human activity. Bedervale was established as a farm in 1826 and boasts a splendid homestead designed by the colonial architect John Verge in 1836–37. But Walker is less interested in the place as an architectural locus. He takes his motifs from the painterly attractions of heaps of discarded tyres and from the calligraphic possibilities of gates and barbed-wire fences stretching across the paddocks.
The Dry Dam, Bedervale has the apparent simplicity of an iconic image – a picture that could be seen repeated across Australia in the drought years of the early twenty-first century. Yet this is one of Walker’s most profound landscapes in which the quality of the paint has become one with its subject. The Dry Dam, Bedervale weaves together many ways of manipulating the brush and the medium. On close analysis there is not one but several paint-qualities in this work. In the top third of the painting broad atmospheric strokes (light overlapping dark) evoke distant hill and cloud; below there is a thin topsoil of paint and, gouged into that ground, is the dam – yellow, pink and white. The bottom of the dam is a stew of earth, like the very paint from which it is made – once wet, now drying.
The cleared landscape around Braidwood is riven with the effects of erosion. These gullies are historical artefacts, a realisation that Walker brought to Braidwood from an earlier experience of painting around the old gold-mining area of Hill End. At Bedervale, one of his favourite painting sites, is a deep gully in which generations of farmers have dumped car-bodies to stabilise the ground. Here is a landscape with an embedded narrative of change; and here again is the interaction of paint and the earth. Walker’s paint represents the cars with their crazed coatings of duco; his earth pigments render the rust and silt slowly sucking them down into the land.
Braidwood has had a deep effect on Walker’s palette; there is a drier quality and a sense of starkness in some of his colour. The Dry Dam, Bedervale has the same cadmium yellow, pink and white scheme that Walker spread across a larger Bedervale canvas in Dry Land Gully, his entry in the 2007 Wynne Prize. As well as cadmium and alizarin he uses a sharp orange and an even sharper acidic green – all of these colours working against the parchment colour of paper or a darker modulated layer which takes its weight from the bluish earthiness of Payne’s grey.
The Monga wet forest begins where the escarpment starts to drop down towards the coast to the east of Braidwood; it is a contrasting type of country on the periphery of the plateau. The forest is a landscape of denser tonality and is moister and greener than any other of Walker’s landscape places. It is an important part of that landscape, but it features less frequently in his work than other motifs. It is almost as though the forest acts as a kind of ‘reserve’ in his mental picture of the country.
Walker’s habitual landscape places are gullies and deep forested valleys – trees opening onto clearings, rock-faces dropping into creeks, road cuttings, hilltops. A common theme is a fascination with the sites where one type of country changes into something else – the dense becomes open, the vertical meets the horizontal, vegetation changes, direction shifts. For him such places seem endlessly evocative. It was in 1999 in just such an environment, around Mount View in the lower Hunter Valley, that after many years as a painter he first began to engage seriously with painting the Australian landscape.
The gullies of Tantulean Creek are reminiscent of the Mount View bush but are uniquely part of that country to the northeast of Braidwood towards Mongarlowe, where the mountains begin. Tantulean Creek creates a series of intimate places as it furls its way between farmland and forested hills. It is impossible to see any part of the creek as a single entity – it must be experienced as an unfolding story. Dawn, Tantulean Creek is conceived as a series of linked episodes and composed as a sequence of connected vertical panels. The form derives from the artist’s drawing practice – he has long used scroll formats and concertina sketchbooks to make drawings. The title precisely locates both an unfolding topography and an unfolding day; ‘Dawn’ pins it down to the short period before the blaze of sunlight.
The narrative structure of Dawn, Tantulean Creek tells us that it is a painting about looking and seeing. We must piece the work together, interpret its marks and allow them to evoke memories of such places we have experienced in the Australian bush. In so doing we perceive the artist’s initial response. As in many of Walker’s paintings Dawn, Tantulean Creek oscillates between the intense elaboration of certain intricate patches of bush and unspecified scanning – how we experience a landscape as we move through it.
There is another quality in the painting that derives from the experience of seeing – a rhythmic arrangement. Whereas in earlier works, like the serial panels he made at Bundanon, the artist used a series of regularly sized canvases, he now develops an internal rhythm for his paintings in which the vertical slices are neither regular nor determining. The result is an embodied structural rhythm that relates to walking and seeing. Or, to be more precise, the unfolding of the landscape as we walk through it and look at it.
As a painter Walker holds that narrative in painting is a factor of compositional arrangement; ‘the greatest narrative painters are the greatest designers’, he says, citing Piero della Francesca as the supreme example.
John R. Walker has been painting now for three decades. Thinking about his work the word ‘visceral’ constantly comes to mind as appropriate to his painting. I have associated this quality with his work since first encountering (in the 1980s) the vigorous paintings of the figure that crowded his upstairs studio in Sydney. ‘Visceral’ remains an apt word, I think, to describe his painterly response to the high, austere and bleached landscape he now inhabits. It is a word that describes his approach as much as his motifs – his paintings are instinctive and felt – and there is no discontinuity between thought and gesture, between mind and body.
Furthermore, there is a new quality that Walker has found in the landscape that knits together his tendency to calligraphy with his love of meaty paint. Between flesh and bone there is sinew and cartilage. More than anything it is cartilage that is suggested in the gelatinous medium that has become a characteristic substance of the Walker’s paint in landscapes such as Dawn, Tantulean Creek. Walker has discovered that the gel medium (which assists in the handling and drying of the oils) can be used as paint, rather than as a medium. It has a semi-transparent gumminess and the colour and consistency of axle grease. It resembles the dried-up cartilage clinging to the bones of a sheep carcass.
To describe him as a visceral painter is to suggest that Walker is involved in the landscape in a physical way. His paintings involve us, the viewers, in a very physical way. His paintings are about seeing – they embody an ever-present sense of curiosity and responsiveness. Yet they are also about feeling, what it is like to be there. Like all truly authentic landscape art we feel that the artist has experienced things, and he points them out, yet it is nature itself that speaks to us, both of its presence and its strangeness.
Andrew Sayers 2008