This is mud season in Maine, where not only ice and snow but earth itself seems to melt beneath one’s feet into an alien, unstable support that is neither land nor sea but something akin to the planet’s primeval ooze. It’s a season that only painters of a certain sensibility-Albert Pinkham Ryder, perhaps, or Ralph Blakelock-could love, for muddy terrain comprehends a density of light and shade that has a character of its own, at once earthly, mercurial and unbound. Mud season seems, then, an appropriate moment for an exhibition of John Walker’s new paintings, which are currently on view at Knoedler & Company in a show called Changing Light .
For some years now, the British-born Mr. Walker has derived his principal landscape subjects from a closely observed muddy cove on the coast of Maine. The cove encloses an oddly shaped tidal pool, which is not the kind of rocky-coast landscape we associate with paintings of Maine. In Mr. Walker’s paintings, the weather is uncertain, and the sky-if visible at all-is reduced to a horizontal band of shadows across the top of a large canvas that otherwise owes much to the painterly conventions of Abstract Expressionism. The light is dusky or moonlit, the tide is low, and the entire scene is firmly resistant to pastoral charm. In the most recent paintings, the horizon line dissolves, and its disappearance sometimes has the effect of nudging the landscape still further in the direction of pure abstraction.
However obscured some of the signs may be, these remain landscapes tethered in their own motif. And for a painter of landscape, Mr. Walker’s motif is, you might say, a “hardship” assignment, or would be in other hands. For Mr. Walker, however, it is precisely because of its refusal to lend itself to easy responses and what is called the pathetic fallacy-the attributions of human emotions to objects of nature-that he’s drawn to this particular landscape’s unexplored mysteries and ambiguities. When a selection of Mr. Walker’s earlier paintings of this muddy-cove motif was organized two years ago at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Me., its director, Katy Kline, cautioned that “in attempting a definitive ‘reading’ of the scene, as in the place itself, one is never on solid footing. The indeterminate ground of the painting deliberately mirrors the uncertain and constantly shifting ground of the actual geography.”
This certainly applies to the new paintings as well, and so does Ms. Kline’s description of what she calls “The Shape”-that is, the oddly shaped tidal pool that is the most prominent feature of the muddy cove. “It has been interpreted,” Ms. Kline writes, “as a wasp-waisted puddle, often reflecting the sky above, whose pinched or swollen edges betray the steady and repeated action of the tides.”
Thus, in Clammer’s Marks 1 (2003) in the current show, all that we see of a bright blue sky is the shifting light of its reflection in the tidal pool of the muddy cove, and the movement of the loaded brush across the surface of the linen support appears to echo that “steady and repeated action of the tides.” In an earlier painting, Clammer’s Moon (2002), what Ms. Kline calls “The Shape” captures the pale light of the moon that is clearly visible just above the horizon line at the top of the picture. In Clammer’s Marks, North Branch (2003), “The Shape” is again filled with a reflection of blue sky, only here it’s accompanied by the hot flashes of what I take to be the last moments of a sunset that illuminates the entire expanse of the cove itself.
Anyone who has ever observed clam-diggers at work in the muddy, low-tide terrain of a summer evening just before dark will recognize the authenticity of the scene that recurs in this Changing Light exhibition. But in these paintings, the diggers have already departed the scene and left only the marks of their labor in the mud, sometimes illuminated by the light of the moon; sometimes even that sign of human intervention is starkly absent.
If you’ve never lived through the mud season in Maine, it may strike you as odd that a muddy expanse should offer a painter such rich variations of light and color, but this is a common experience at this time of year in Maine, and not only at the seashore. After a heavy spring rain, you are likely to encounter similar reflections in the puddles of dirt roads and backyards and even in the gutters of the city streets where the drainage is poor. Indeed, once you’ve seen Mr. Walker’s paintings of this natural phenomenon, you tend to see the changing light of the mud season wherever you turn; his remarkable series of big, ambitious paintings helps you to understand and appreciate this visual poetry. It’s a nice reminder that the art of painting, if sufficiently original and profound in its perceptions of experience, still has the power to change the way we look at the world around us.
Mr. Walker was right, too, to give this exhibition the title Changing Light . Without that clue, I dare say many visitors to this exhibition would mistake his paintings for pure abstraction. But then, of course, nature is itself a copious creator of abstract images, if we have the eye to see them.
John Walker: Changing Light remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through April 26.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.