|John Walker, 'Still Life I', Oil on Canvas, 2018|
I was over in Birmingham recently, visiting my friend Andrew Smith, and found myself at Ikon, reacquainting myself with the paintings of John Walker, after nearly four decades.
Birmingham-born Walker seemed to have garnered quite a lot of favourable attention, around the time I was studying Fine Art, in the early 1980s. And yet, as an abstract painter - and one whose work was largely landscape-derived, it also felt like artistic fashion was fast leaving him behind. Behind his roughly scumbled brushwork and clotted surfaces, and despite the suggestion of recessive or theatrical illusionistic space, in his work - the fact remained that Walker was rooted in the essential language of formal abstraction. In 1982, when I was hesitantly moving in a similar direction, that could often feel like the increasingly obsolete language of a previous generation.
|John Walker, 'Recent Paintings', January 2020|
|John Walker, (R) 'Passage', 2015 & (L) 'Ripple', 2017, Oil On Canvas|
|John Walker, (R) 'Nomad II', 2018 & (L) 'Looking In', 2017, Oil On Canvas|
A year earlier, Norman Rosenthal's massive 'A New Spirit In Painting' survey at The Royal Academy had laid down a pretty unmissable marker. It covered a wide gamut of styles, and included not a few established names. However, the message was still pretty clear: if painting was to contradict the 'painting is dead' brigade, in a world where photography and Conceptualism had apparently claimed the future - it wouldn't be by extending the legacy of Modernist abstraction, apparently. I remember trudging round the Academy, wanting to be pleased by the sheer quantity of painting on offer, and yet simultaneously perplexed that there was so little of kind of stuff I had begun to identify with. Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Delaunay, and assorted Cubists and colour-field painters, were my newly-found heroes - but now, no one else seemed particularly interested in them. Expressionism was definitely a thing, but it was the figurative, German kind - not the American abstract variety. The figure definitely trumped landscape, where subject or sources were concerned.
|John Walker, 'St John's Bay Red, Yellow, Blue', Oil On Canvas, 2011-18 (Detail Below)|
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it's now possible to see how I was there, just as painting had taken an official right-turn into what became labelled Post Modernism. At the age of 19, however, I rather lacked the perspective to appreciate that - taking it all rather too personally, instead - I fear. When I discovered Walker, in the library of Bristol Polytechnic's Arts Campus, shortly afterwards, I was pleased to find a contemporary abstractionist of the kind I wanted to affirm, but equally disappointed to note he was already resorting to depicting skulls alongside his trademark folded planes. They felt like corny shorthand for some synthetic, non-specific angst - and like he was suddenly trying to play catch-up, with a spot of fashionable cartoon voodoo. And that was pretty much the last time I thought much about him - until I walked into Ikon, with Andrew, 38 years later.
|John Walker, 'Fishing With Tom And Les', Oil On Canvas, 2017|
|John Walker, 'Lowe Lode', Oil On Canvas, 2019|
Well, the good news is, the skulls are gone (although replaced by the occasional cut-out fish), the language is once more, resolutely abstract, and the overall context - clearly landscape derived. Ironically, though, it's now me that has come to accept that the natural landscape (be it Cornish coastline, or American desert), isn't really my subject at all - and that painting in its pure sense, isn't even really my first language any more. But, enough about me - this is supposed to be about John Walker's painting. This deep into his career (and indeed - his life) there seems to be some vindication, in this late work, of the idea of sticking to one's guns, or at least reconnecting with one's original motivations.
|John Walker, (R) 'John's Bay Pollution', 2017 & (L) 'Ripple', 2017, Oil On Canvas|
As for the paintings themselves, there's clearly no lack of confidence or assertion there. Walker evokes his current adopted home environment, on the New England coast, with a vocabulary of crudely-daubed angular waveforms, parallel bands, wonky chequerboard grids, truncated ellipses, and those occasional dangling fish motifs. Although distinctly maritime, the palette is bold and direct, sometimes reverting to a monochrome (or something close-to) scheme of largely unmixed colour - often contrasting with clean whites, and with an impact that might be described as emblematic. There's a distinct echo of Jasper Johns or even Frank Stella in all those repeating rhythms of lines and alternating stripes - although they're being employed here for far more imitative, and far less conceptual reasons, it should be recognised.
|John Walker, 'Tidal Change', Oil On Canvas, 2017|
|John Walker, 'Place', Oil On Canvas, 2018|
For, what Walker is actually doing, is to both distill and compile his landscape experience into a collision of separate glimpses and impressions. This is the kind of simultaneity first devised by Cezanne, before being fully capitalised upon by Braque, Picasso, and the subsequent waves of Cubists, who followed them. It also feels related in some way (albeit - with far less west coast shimmer, or refined elegance) to Diebenkorn's distillations of a coastal landscape. Actually, a more apposite connection might be with a painter like Peter Lanyon, whose synthesis of the Cornish landscape famously came from swooping over it in gliders, and whose energetic, looping calligraphy and sweeping painterly gestures captured, within them, both time and motion. Like Lanyon, Walker eschews the horizontal skyline (the portrait orientation of these canvases is no accident), and all those repeating stripes and zig-zags must surely chart the endless rhythm of waves, possibly observed on separate tides, and subject to varying marine temperaments.
However, whilst Lanyon's best work appears to soar above his coast in a vortex of light, weather, and free movement, these paintings by Walker describe a far more rugged, and possibly constrained, situation. The geometry may be wonky, but it's structural nonetheless - suggesting perhaps the funnelling of ocean tides between harbour walls, jetties or quaysides. Walker may evoke the sea, but he appears to do so with his feet firmly on dry land.
|John Walker, 'Nomad I', Oil On Canvas, 2018|
Another feature which strikes me is his almost wilfully careless approach to paint application, along with the stark economy of much of this work. In Lanyon, there is often a veiling of colours, or a kind of overwriting of marks, however rapidly they may have been laid down. However, in many cases, Walker's marks appear to be the first and only thing he put down, before simply moving on to the next, equally slapdash statement. In this situation, it's the accumulation, and the method in which those marks are all packed into the overall composition, which give the painting its sense of gravity. In this respect, the paintings remind me of the way Patrick Heron's late garden paintings became comprised of hastily-sketched, and increasingly insubstantial, notations for the plants he wanted to describe - whereas he might have once immersed the viewer in lush fields of unbroken colour.
|John Walker, 'Nomad II', Oil On Canvas, 2018|
Is this something that happens to certain painters as they work on into old age - I wonder? Does the urgency to still make paintings press up against the dwindling away of the time remaining in which to do so? If I'm honest, the lack of tension in so many of Walker's marks, or concern over their perceived 'quality', disappointed me rather on first viewing. First impressions can, of course be deceptive, but even now, I find these canvases far more pleasing when viewed across the room, or even - as here, in miniature reproduction. In either case, a degree of internal tension returns as the image becomes more condensed upon the retina. If his direct, unmodulated attack, represents a thoroughly courageous, and unselfconscious method of painting (as it certainly does), my own, rather more weaselly sensibilities are still drawn more towards those canvases upon which a degree of layering, modulation, or visible over-painting has occurred.
|John Walker, 'Stern View', 2017, Oil on Canvas|
|John Walker, 'Black Paint', Oil On Canvas, 2015 (Detail Below)|
|John Walker, 'John's Bay Pollution', Oil On Canvas, 2017 (Detail Below)|
Perhaps then, John Walker is one of those artists with whose work I'm destined to always have a slightly strained relationship, (despite approving of it whole-heartedly, in principle). Perhaps it's just a question of commitment. Walker seemingly wields his brush with the minimum of hesitation or concern for the crippling niceties of painting. He also pushed on through the vicissitudes of fashion, and inconvenient Art History, to pursue his core vision, regardless. I, on the other hand, gave up even trying to be anything as noble or straightforward as a pure painter, some years ago.
John Walker: 'Recent Paintings', continues until 23 February, at Ikon, 1 Oozells Square, Birmingham, B1 2HS
'A New Spirit In Painting', ran from 15 January - 18 March 1981, at: The Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1S 3ET