This essay was included in the catalogue for John R Walker’s solo exhibition at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, entitled Space and Time: 10 years in the landscape 2011. The title of the exhibition is taken from Sayers’ opening paragraph.
‘John R Walker’s drawings, a personal view’ an essay by Andrew Sayers
To walk around in the Australian bush you need space and time. In his landscape drawings John gives us both. Space is created around (and in) the objects of his attention – fences, trees, a bridge, a pile of discarded tyres. And time is present in the narrative of walking and looking.
John’s drawings are a complex narrative of incident, feeling, gesture and intuitive response. We are presented with a temporal experience. Together we move, we halt, we move on, the topography changes our rhythm, we shift direction, moving on again. We are invited to look, our attention is drawn to significant details, we are alert to (subtle or dramatic) changes of texture and light.
Christopher Hodges, friend, fellow artist and long-time agent probably understands the artist as deeply as anyone. In 2002 he gave John a blank book, Chinese, constructed as a ‘concertina’. It was a prescient gift – Hodges must have sensed that this type of book would become a favourite with the artist. In the previous year, after immersing himself in the Shoalhaven landscape at Bundanon, John had signalled his ambition to make what he describes as ‘long, discrete but sequential pictures’. (Shoalhaven Ridge, 2001, 9 panelled work, oil on canvas).
The concertina book is a kind of prototype for just such an expanded view – two, four or six or more pages can be visible at any particular time, rather than the limited spread available in the traditional sketchbook. The soft and absorbent paper is suited to brush & ink, a long preferred medium for sketching. Drawings can be treated as discrete statements or they can spread horizontally; episodic drawings and notations can be read singly or as a series of connected visual observations. The landscape is regarded as a whole; yet, at the same time, it is a journey through motifs – an unfolding.
In an earlier essay on the artist, I drew a parallel between John Walker and the painter/poet of the T’ang Dynasty, Wang Wei. I thought that John’s observatinos of the subtle incidents that take place within the landscape paralleled the precise, localised observations we find in Wang Wei’s classic poems. The artist of Braidwood and the artist of the Wangchuan Villa share an acute sensibility to the qualities of different (though often closely proximate) places. John is always exploring the many localities around Braidwood. Each has its own micro-climate, its own geology and vegetation. These specific landscapes have been made by natural forces and by human activities and have been shaped by the interactions of these two energies.
The Braidwood landscape is one in which cycles of varying duration overlap. The rocky soil will give life to a tree, the tree will become a fence post, the fence will lean and decay, lichen will colonise it, insects will eat it from within, green shoots will grow out from beneath it. With enough time the landscape will be completely reshaped, the things we humans put into it – cars, buildings, roads – all will be swallowed up.
The greater and lesser cycles in nature are something we associate with Chinese art. The presence of these cycles is not the only echo of that tradition in John’s art. He appreciates the spaces between things; he lets the white of the paper suggest space and distance; his line is calligraphic. On the other hand, his response to the landscape differs from the finely turned outcome of literary contemplation such as we find in the work of the Chinese painter – it is something felt. Landscape is felt in the body and expressed in gesture. And it admits a kind of informality, a rangy quality that Margaret Preston (another devotee of Chinese painting) thought was characteristic of the Australian bush.
When Margaret Preston talked about ‘the rough and tumble of our growth of trees without design or any other purpose than that of covering space’, she had Aboriginal rock art in mind, yet it seems that in her own work design emerged organically from a narrative of feeling and experience. So, too, with John’s drawings.
It is often said that in their drawings, painters are revealed with greatest truth. A generalisation, of course. Yet in the case of a gestural artist, drawing can reveal something valuable about the sources of the artist’s inspiration. The more naked the drawing the more we can see the artist’s vision of the origin of the world. In John’s sparse drawings we notice that the landscape is in the process of making itself – principally through the historical action of erosion. The artist’s line pictures that process. He follows the crevices, the gullies and dry washouts with his brush, occasionally alighting with stroking gesture on the thickets of trees or mounds of stone. Or he points to the outcrops of rubbish, leads us down into the cracks in the earth, finds a path through the boggy hollows.
In his drawings I cannot help but feel that we are advancing on an old battlefield. Why do I feel this? Perhaps it is because the landscape is criss-crossed with barbed wire and riven with trenches (in ‘the colours of modern wars’ as A. D. Hope described the bush). Perhaps I am reminded of earlier Australian landscape painters such as George Lambert tramping over battlefields finding the debris of past actions. In my case I’ve always felt an undefined sense of historical presence in the Braidwood landscape. Judith Wright was the poet of this sense and John is the calligrapher who most intuitively brings it to the surface.
In his Letters on Cézanne the poet Rilke recounts going to look at Cézanne’s paintings with the painter Mathilde Vollmoeder. The surprised poet records his friend’s comment on Cézanne’s approach to landscape: ‘He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive’. In John’s drawings I sense that he, too, is an artist searching for a way to simply honour the landscape as it reveals itself.
© Andrew Sayers