Expressionist Walker Takes on Maine and War

The English-born painter John Walker, whose work is

currently the subject of a compelling exhibition at Knoedler & Company, now

teaches at Boston University and has lately been painting in Maine. He is,

among much else, an Expressionist with an appetite for big, elegiac subjects.

He is also an Abstractionist with a yearning for the resources of

representation. He has clearly forsaken pure abstraction as inadequate to his

pictorial purposes; yet even as it embraces certain elements of representation,

his painting nonetheless remains steadfast in its loyalty to the aesthetics of

abstraction.

This is a more common conundrum among modernist painters of

Mr. Walker’s generation (he was born in 1939) than you might suppose, and one

of the reasons that Mr. Walker commands attention at the moment is his refusal

to disguise the divided character of his artistic ambitions. Another reason is,

of course, the authority he brings to the painterly medium.

However one chooses to characterize this ambition, Mr. Walker’s

is clearly a talent haunted by history: both the distant and recent history of

painting itself, and his family history-especially his father’s horrific

experience in the trenches during the First World War. All of this places a

very heavy burden on Mr. Walker’s painting, and the wonder is not that he

doesn’t always succeed in bringing these disparate impulses into perfect

harmony with each other, but that he manages to make so much of their

inevitable collision.

Coherence is not to be expected from this collision of

interests and loyalties, and there is no use in pretending that the current

exhibition at Knoedler’s, which is called John

Walker: Time and Tides , doesn’t give us a kind of split-screen account of

the artist’s governing aspirations. Subjects drawn from nature-in this case,

the landscape of the Maine coast-tend to be treated with a turbulence almost as

dour as those that evoke the violence of war, while the subject of war is

treated more allusively by recourse to the words of poets who have written

about it.

In the most ambitious of Mr. Walker’s war elegies, large

areas of the canvas are covered with words from the most famous English poets

of the First World War-Wilfred Owen and David Jones-and from a more recent

poem, Rosanna Warren’s Mud (for John

Walker) (1997), written in direct response to Mr. Walker’s paintings. All

of these poetic words are inscribed in neat rows on the picture surface by the

painter, using a loaded brush, against (in some cases) a background grid of

what looks to be a chain-link fence. The words in this painterly script aren’t

always easily legible, but that is less important than the fact that they are

in any case less horrific than the macabre figures of a man with a sheep’s

skull for a head-Mr. Walker’s symbolic representation of his father as a

casualty of the carnage of war.

What is one to make of this problematic practice of using

words-or rather, writing, and lots of it-as a substitute or embellishment of

pictorial form? Opinions will naturally differ on this question, but I have to

confess to an aversion to paintings that press a great many words into serving

as pictorial images. This practice strikes me as a conflation or confusion of

genres that invites us to participate in emotions for which the painter has clearly

failed to find a specific pictorial correlative. Poems that read well, that

really engage our minds and emotions on the printed page, become something else

when turned into brush marks on an oversize canvas. Writ large on the painted

surface, they hector, they sermonize, they substitute a literary message for a

medium that is fundamentally-and gloriously!-wordless. They are a confirmation

that there are certain catastrophes in modern experience for which modernist

painting has not yet found an adequate means of expression.

The Maine landscapes in Mr. Walker’s current exhibition are

something else entirely. They are certainly the best paintings by Mr. Walker I

have seen. They also bear no resemblance to any other paintings of the Maine

sea coast, a subject that has certainly inspired a good many masterworks in the

past, especially in the art of John Marin and Marsden Hartley, but also a good

deal of pictorial kitsch. Mr. Walker approaches this overused subject as an

outsider, and with a determination to avoid the picturesque. This is Maine in

what is called the mud season, when the earth and the sea drain the fugitive

light of its clarity and sparkle, and nature itself can seem to be unforgiving

and unrenewable.

In my view, anyway, the paradox of this Time and Tides exhibition is that Mr. Walker is far more successful

in striking a tragic note in these landscape paintings than in the war elegies

that are so deliberately designed to elicit a sense of human tragedy. In his

essay for the catalog of the exhibition, Jack Flam speaks of Mr. Walker’s

“images of war,” but what really dominates the war paintings are images of

words about war, and this has the effect of placing the subject of war itself

at a certain distance from our experience of painting. It is in his “images of

nature” that Mr. Walker succeeds in reminding us of what painting can achieve

in expressing the gravest emotions. Does this suggest that the artist has now

irrevocably abandoned the ambiguities of abstraction for the kind of

representation that has haunted his painting for some years now? Probably not.

A refusal to choose between abstraction and representation seems to be the

keynote of his work just now. But it will be interesting to see where his

attachment to the Maine sea coast takes him in the future. Meanwhile, these

landscapes of Maine instantly take their place in the great tradition of

northern romantic landscape painting.

John Walker: Time and

Tides remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street,

through March 3.