ALEXANDRE GALLERY, NEW YORK
NOVEMBER 3 – DECEMBER 22, 2015
John Walker’s large-format plein air paintings are existential images, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above Sea and Fog (1818). Well into his seventies, Walker drags his signature-sized 7-by-5 1/2 foot canvases through the woods to a spit of land on his property at Seal Point, Maine. Looking out onto the Atlantic, Walker confronts his emotionally charged subjects: the land, sea, sky, sun, and moon.
He’s been painting this view for two decades. The pictures all contain a number of repeating elements: a horizontal band along the top of the canvas punctuated by a colored circle (like Forrest Bess’s horizons, or celestial bodies); tidal flats beneath the cliff that become an oversized U-shape; an island just off the coast, a compositional anchor; the ocean tide coming in underneath him; and radiating waves of color, reminiscent of Charles Burchfield’s mystical swamps. Like Thomas Nozkowski’s walks in upstate New York, during which he sees details in nature that may appear in his own abstract paintings, Walker claims to have drawn all of these elements from direct observation.
Twelve large-format canvases—all of which feature interlocking zig-zag patterns (a shorthand for the crests of water on the surface of the sea?)—were made exclusively inside his studio, a departure for Walker, who regularly begins his works outside and only finishes inside. By employing this familiar composition as a platform for his investigations, Walker is free to build a series of pictures that foreground his concerns about painting in general.
The new studio works, comprised of thinner passages of transparent color, are a stark contrast to his earlier paintings, dense with paint, collage, sand, dirt, and other organic materials. Cascade (2015) reveals rough charcoal line drawing, more commonly read as under-painting. The paint is built up in tiny bursts of gemlike color. These blooms are carefully positioned on top of an overall white-green structure. There is also a curious addition to these drawing-like paintings: an unidentifiable material that has the consistency of undercooked eggs over easy.
Walker is clearly having fun in these new canvases. Meders Smoke (2015) is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s The Moroccans (1915 – 1916), a collage of flat patterns, and windows that look into distant spaces. Here, a micro-landscape of a waterway is interrupted by wet-into-wet vertical stripes in phthalo—a distinctly unnatural blue, as glittering and iridescent as Ricky’s nail polish—dragged dry over a hole of delicious crimson; elsewhere, viridian is woven through a creamy white ground that fades to acid green.
Older landscapes on view in the secondary gallery reveal Walker’s attachment to 90s era Schnabel-esque studio magic (dirt, debris, detritus). In this rubric, the more one labors a surface, the more imbued with magic it becomes. In Sea Cake IV (2004), Walker paints violently with his hands and fingers, filling in the U-shape of the tidal flat with densely layered sand, oil, and dirt, like Philip Guston’s Deluge (1969).
The gallery’s window, which looks out onto Tiffany & Co.’s blinking holiday decorations, stresses Walker’s otherwise humble project’s relation to the market. In this context, the line between structured parody and formalist sincerity seems precariously thin.
The Point in Bloom I (2015) was included in the exhibition at Walker’s insistence. In it, an enormous green phallic blob penetrates the painting from the lower right. It is decorated with daisies of impasto lead white, flashes of yellow and orange, and supported by violet shadows. The weirdness of the composition underscores Walker’s commitment to spontaneity. For Walker, this painting embodies his biggest recent breakthrough: blooming spring rather than dead winter.
Where the work from the 2000s is labored, these 2015 works are luminous, fresh. Walker knows when to stop. The easiness of his dry-brushed strokes over vast swaths of canvas bring to mind de Kooning’s late ribbons of paint. Painting exclusively in the studio, it seems, has given Walker a different kind of freedom; his drawings and collages freely exchange ideas, while working from memory has relieved his attachment to his subject. In this, his first year since 1992 not teaching full-time at Boston University (he is now Professor Emeritus), Walker’s studio practice is wide-open to invention. Looking Out to Sea is our first encounter with a new period in Walker’s lifelong project: painting.
STEPHEN TRUAX is an artist and writer in New York.