On ViewAlexandre Gallery
John Walker: New Work
April 29 – June 23, 2023
New York City
Resurrection III, the first painting in John Walker: New Work is almost entirely cobalt-blue and white canvas stretching seven feet high. A vertical primer-white passage cuts upward through the blue, with lateral extensions branching left and right. Short blue vertical or horizontal strokes that cross the white pathways in alternating sections could be dock pieces seen from above, their sections set at odds to create pathways around slips; or they could be the echoes of oyster rafts adrift in tidal waters, their regular rectangular shapes set in neat rows. On the painting’s right edge, staccato cobalt stabs tumble down a sometimes-impasto white field where charcoal-black u-shaped outlines duck in and out. Blue strokes like buoys bob in choppy white ground. Far from these oceanic associations, Walker explained that the painting has its pictorial root in a deposition scene by Rogier van der Weyden that Walker saw in the Prado Museum, in which the cross and a leaning ladder are a central axis, and a grieving Mary faints with sorrow below, her face gray-white in her pooling blue garment. Yet, in Walker’s painting (importantly titled Resurrection—an upward movement, rather than a descent from the cross), those cross-hatched marks might transform insistently into the ordinary stuff of docks again. It might be springtime before the boats have found them, when slips sit expectantly empty. Maybe those flanking buoys wait for prey to wander through the ocean-floor-bound traps they signal. Maybe this is a coastal world in splendor and in wait. Does life return? Walker’s painting collages Maine’s vernacular and art’s history into, emphatically, new work, which survives and transforms its referents.
Walker’s six-decade career has included teaching appointments at Cooper Union, Yale University, the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, and the Royal College in London. He retired in 2015 as head of the graduate program in painting at Boston University. Having first come to Maine in 1970, and living there full-time since the 1990s, the state’s distinctive landscape, light, and environment is embedded in his work. The Maine coast near Walker’s home and studio is tidal—a sulfurous mud flat when the tide is out and blue ocean when the tide is in. As Walker told William Corbett in 2015, “It’s always been an aspiration of mine to get the smell of Maine, the wetness, the dampness, the mud in my smelly, stinky cove.” Indeed, for many, Maine’s coastline is not so much an idyll as a workplace, where thousands in the fishing industry work the cold and temperamental ocean every day. Maine’s colorful buoys and distinctive boats are the tools of a trade.
In Solitude (2021), the cobalt blue of Resurrection III returns, mixing sharply-defined forms with smeariness. The work is urgent, its black/blue/white palette suggesting a painting worked with energy and immediacy, perhaps unmixed. In the painting’s top third, a loose arc suggesting a white topographical chart, a tidal curve, or a boat’s wake implies movement with its black lines and smeary blue-white ground. Below, a similar curve of black strokes suggests a wooden boat’s hull seen from inside, but the boat’s planking transforms whimsically into center-parted hair, or waves following each other into shore. A familiar u-shaped buoy-form in the bottom third arises from a muddy yellow-umber lined by off-white gestural strokes that carry a shock of citron yellow. The coordination of forms, the broad or delicate gestures that join color and image, and the over/under dialogue of painted layers insist on absorbing the viewer in a painted world. The painting looks out at the ocean, but perhaps from a position on the ocean; the artist is embedded in the scene he renders. As with Tiepolo’s painting, the source materials settle in the brush of the artist interpreting them, becoming shape and color that hold the world’s hand without representing it. The artist’s seeing and memory and feel for paint flow together.
Walker’s paintings are often immense, but they can be tender. The boats and the tides, the buoys and docks are all, by turns, rendered and undone. The tidal chart becomes a boat hull and back again. They float between paint and the world in a lonely bardo that holds each together in wordless union. The elements of these paintings, despite being entirely painted, sometimes feel collaged—as though the white/black topographical/tidal/hull form of Solitude had been cut from elsewhere and pasted rather than painted over the blue ground, with obvious reference to Matisse’s late collages. The effect is one of fragmentation and union, of the parts belonging together and remaining separate. So too, the horizon, which sometimes hits so high on the painting it renders the scene aquatic, and sometimes angles as though in flux, both suggests and obscures the viewer’s purchase on what she sees. The three gorgeous untitled works on paper in the exhibition soften and expand this interplay of form and image as their ink soaks and bleeds over and through hull and buoy-like forms.
Walker’s New Work joins art history, the slow work of daily observation and the working waterfront itself in brackish solution. Buoys dip in and out of the surf and then surface the way a van der Weyden lives in a painter’s memory, now suddenly, immediately, new.