In John Walker’s current exhibit titled Changing Light, the artist turns his compass point in an unexpected direction to explore an American theme, the coast of Maine. Yet again Walker provides us with an experience that invokes a conjunction between nature and our collective past. But gone are the charged iconographical and autobiographical motifs, and in their place are deep vistas filled instead with a hushed emptiness.
Originally from Great Britain, Walker has previously explored the landscapes of Australia and Vermont. Here in the U.S. he is both a native and a visitor, and one is tempted to see these works within a traditional American genre. But they are thoroughly modernist, and their essential elements are those of a minimalist planar ground set against an horizon and containing either sun or moon. Painted with ease and confidence, they are full of repose and the pleasure of looking across expanses of land. Often their setting is dusk, or the brief time just before dawn. Each painting is set on the edge of the seashore, and their reflective surfaces shimmer with the layering of transparent films of paint, handled with a deftness and an utter lightness of touch.
Another element present in nearly every painting is a tidal pool, the relational place of which shifts from painting to painting, and whose presence becomes more charged with significance as this series progresses. Tidal pools are residues of water the sea has left behind when the tide goes out. Though separated from the immensity of the whole, they nevertheless harbor the ocean’s procreative elements, which cling to their lifeline and wait until the tide returns. They thus become symbolic centers of loss and regeneration.
These paintings invoke strong aural and tactile elements; one can hear the insistent sound of the water and feel the muddy sand. In paintings titled “Clammer’s Marks, John’s Bay,” Walker brings in new elements: hand drawn and horizontal bars and pool-like reflections echoed by rounded script scrawled latterly across the painted surface. Here color crescendos to thick muddy scumbled reds and ultra-marine blues. It is at these moments that Walker implies a history of memory from Europe, a history brought to the American shore and harkening back to its continent of origin. Previous works of Walker’s have dealt with historical events directly, such as World War I. In the present work, his concern is rather to change a tradition: to reevaluate classical landscape painting without using the conventions of the picturesque.
As a student of his, I once heard him say: “Cut an Englishman open and you’ll find a landscape.” Why this is more true of an Englishman than of an American or a Frenchman is more than I can say. Walker has, however, broken away from the nineteenth-century idea of the picturesque and works here with minimally pictorial elements: the horizon, the sun or moon, and tidal pool motifs. He treats them in such a way that their emptiness opens up the possibility of renewal.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.