There aren’t many painters making abstractions as convincing as John Walker’s. This recent exhibition, with its combination of lyricism and aggression—fueled by hours painting from the spit of land outside his studio in coastal Maine—came at a moment when a lot of painters seem to have adopted, whether consciously or not, aspects of his method. He moves easily between representational and abstract imagery, and he mixes seemingly contradictory inclinations. For example, his process is messy and engaged, but his compositions are deliberate and playful; his work shifts suddenly from somber to slapstick; he has a sincere belief in painting’s transcendent power but embraces absurdist anti-painting gestures.
Walker belongs squarely in the tough-guy visionary camp of postwar British painting, along with paint-splashers and big-tube squeezers like Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton. Like them, he mixes the coloristic exuberance of School of Paris painting with a Wordsworthian belief in nature’s spiritual power. At a time when the medium’s many young (and not-so-young) practitioners are busy googling images of lesser-known midcentury abstraction to make compositions that carry oomph, as can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” in New York (through Apr. 5), Walker, who is 75, creates paintings as fresh and powerful as the artists in that show without need for the Internet.
Two main bodies of work (dating from 2013 or ’14) were featured here: 16 small oil sketches on bingo cards (left in Walker’s studio from its days as a grange hall) and seven large works (mostly 7 by 5½ feet). From these two groups—the sketches done directly from the landscape, the others in the studio—one got a good sense of the process of abstracting that happens from painting and repainting what he calls the trash-strewn inlet outside his studio.
Walker’s buttery, wet-on-wet small paintings tend to reveal more of the landscape’s features—we sense receding space, shore and horizon, along with reflections and islands dotting the surface. The big paintings are, not surprisingly, very different from the sketches and from other works he has shown recently. Planes of roughly brushed zigzags and straight-ish lines are cut near the top by an implied horizon and, in four of the large works, the white rocks of the spit flatten into a sail-like white form, reminiscent of Guston’s hooded klansmen. Gelatinous green islands and masked-out suns link back to the landscape. The preponderance of greens, blues and whites is undercut by smaller dots and strokes of ocher, brown and black. The surfaces in each painting veer from matte to glossy (often in the blacks) to pebble- and sand-mixed to viscous, as in the greens and whites in The Sea No II. There’s an occasional raunchiness to his colors and textures, the smears of earth tones alongside the waxy yellows exulting in real and metaphoric dirtiness. And drawing is never too far away: in Touch, thick white lines are painted over the majority of the picture, with rough charcoal lines drawn into and over them.
Walker’s longtime combination of rigor and anything-goes dovetails with the current interest in a collage aesthetic. Like his canvases, paintings by Carrie Moyer and Charline von Heyl also wrestle with modernism on its own terms. This show was a welcome reminder of how good his intense and never predictable work can be.
John Walker’s Maine is a fertile place. It continues to provide rich source material for his work as he enters his fifth decade as a painter. Working in the studio or en plein air at the edge of an ocean cove (whose mud is sometimes incorporated into his paintings), the English-born artist, 71, does not offer scenic views of Maine. Instead, the landscape suggests to him motifs or structures, around which he builds essentially abstract compositions.
This exhibition featured seven small, five medium-size and two enormous canvases, all painted in 2010. Motifs from Walker’s earlier series flow in and out of the recent work. The mud reappears, as do cutout shapes of painted canvas collaged onto the surfaces.
As in previous works, he peppers the grounds with flecks and smears of paint that convey the pebbled texture of a coastal flat at low tide. And recurring in some pieces is Walker’s signature “alba” shape, initially inspired by the outline of the figure in black in Goya’s Duchess of Alba (1797), who memorably points to the ground where the artist’s name appears written in the sand.
In the small and medium-size paint- ings, which are accomplished works of sumptuous color and texture, we find Walker well within his comfort zone. His familiar forms, representing a cove, a tree or a brush fire, are simplified into archetypal symbols that he arranges in wonderfully improvised-looking composi- tions. One work, Coastal Cross, betrays the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe, and even more strongly implies a meditation on the most famously self-styled “painter from Maine,” Marsden Hartley.
In the two largest paintings we see Walker stretching, pushing himself forward with new ideas and renewed ambition. The results are mixed, but nonetheless com- pelling. Bird Strike (about 8 by 13 feet) has lumpy, calligraphic tracks crossing a white ground; it brings to mind Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print (1953) and also Franz Kline. Walker’s painting, however, could just as easily allude to a fallen tree or woody vines. At the lower center right of the canvas are summarily painted birds Black-capped Chickadees, the state bird of Maine. The other large work is untitled (9 by 10 feet) and has a thick area of mud in the center, which resembles a large cartoonish head. The shape brings to mind the schematic heads in late Guston, or a Ray Johnson bunny. Unique to this exhibition are the collaged newspaper strips that run off the edge of the canvas like streamers. Irregular patterns of white horizontal stripes and red Xs in thin and drippy paint, which look like chain-link fencing, cover large areas of the composition. This is also the only work on view that contains text. “Not now/ maybe never,” scraped out of the white paint in the upper left corner, could refer to the artist’s own apprehension with regard to the new directions and lofty goals he has set for himself in this show.
Photo: John Walker: Untitled, 2010, oil with mixed mediums and collage on canvas, 108 by 120 inches; at Knoedler.