‘Winter in the Fire Forest’ is a body of work that can be tentatively traced to a discovery Walker made whilst painting at the edge of a mountain ash forest near Reidsdale, New South Wales some seven years ago. In the mossy quiet, amongst lush ferns, Walker stumbled across the huge, very charred stump of a burnt tree:
It suddenly hit me that I was in this forest and it felt wet and cold and damp, but not that long ago, sometime in the past twenty or thirty of fifty years, it had been on fire. That sort of sums up certain things about the forests around here…1
The eucalypt forests of the regions hugging the south eastern Australian coastline depend on fire for their survival. What destroys the highly flammable trees is also their means of rebirth. It was perhaps this sense of deep time and cyclical natural forces that struck Walker as he contemplated the charcoal stump amongst verdant undergrowth.
The series of seven canvases titled ‘Winter in the Fire Forest’, mainly executed this year in Walker’s Braidwood studio, are imbued with a recollection of that Reidsdale fire forest, refreshed by walks into the bush-land of the local Mount Gillamatong.2 They are dreamscapes, misty and filled with potential – not of a particular landscape but rather capturing some essence, fuelled by memory, of the Australian bush – in Walker’s words ‘a sound, or an absence of sound… a strange sort of humming.’
Andrew Sayers has said of Walker’s paintings that ‘it is almost as though the forest acts as a kind of “reserve” in his mental picture of the country.’3 Certainly, whilst Walker has often been described as a painter who places one ‘in the landscape’, his works have less often placed one ‘in the forest’ in the same way as this most recent series does.
The absence of horizon line, the moody tonality of filtered light, the scratchings that might be trees and might be marks alone – all of these elements create a strong sense of being in a space that is at once familiar and fantastical. This is a space that has to be worked through by the viewer. The bones of the image are in a sense abstract – a pink daub here, a charcoal line there, a fine edge of blue wash that might just be sky. It is through the formal process of viewing one of these paintings that the shapes and structures of a landscape (whether real or imagined) emerge.
These works can be viewed as a sequence of interconnecting episodes that work together in a rhythmic flow – each unique image building upon and deepening the motifs of the next. Walker has often worked across a schema of multiple views or moments. Site, an over seven metre long four-panel painting from 2011, works in such a way, evoking a rambling narrative of wandering through the bush around Braidwood. Similarly, Walker paints in Chinese concertina books. In this format, scenes often unfold episodically across a multitude of paper panels.
In Walker’s art the history of the painting process – the visceral quality of paint on canvas, the marks over marks over marks maps to the history of the landscape: ‘the landscape here is full of ghosts… there are all these funny traces of what has been and what isn’t there’. In this way, the delicate charred tracings of the ‘Winter in the Fire Forest’ series resonate with the intricate meshwork of fence-lines and gates that Walker has been exploring for many years – marking traces of past activities within the landscape: ‘What really interests me are these funny areas that are not wilderness; they are not urban… they are the boundary zones, places of transition’. Crust, the large-scale canvas from early 2012, is a fine example of the mesh motif in Walker’s work, emerging here at the bottom of an erosion gully rendered in wild oranges and pinks against the more typical Australian straw.
Walker’s acute sense of the structures and possibilities of the Australian landscape continues the tradition of painters such as Arthur Streeton, Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan. Streeton’s Fire’s On holds a particularly important place in Walker’s art. In a similar way to his discovery of the charred stump in the Reidsdale ash forest, Walker had ‘a moment’ with this painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales some twenty years ago: ‘it just suddenly struck me how potent it was… this strange way in which the landscape is just there, and all the human dramas look really very small.’ In Walker’s most recent paintings, the grand themes of death and rebirth are absorbed into a familiar yet strange sense of place. Regarding this notion of death and rebirth, Walker has explicitly quoted the following stanza, from the poem ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ by John Donne, as a source of inspiration for this series.
I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
1. All quotes from the artist were recorded during a conversation with the author in his Braidwood studio on 5 September 2012.
2. The ‘originating’, painting from this series is the 2005 board that has spent the past number of years on the wall of Walker’s living-room.
3. Andrew Sayers, ‘John R Walker’s landscape’, catalogue essay in Working in the Landscape, Utopia Art Sydney, 2008
© Chloe Watson