Painter John Walker Evokes Maine Coast

For the many people, whether tourists or natives, whose favorite

memories of paintings of Maine are largely defined by the work of Winslow Homer

in the 19th century and the Wyeth clan in the 20th, the art of John Walker is

bound to come as something of a shock. Everything traditionally associated with

the beloved imagery of the Maine coast and its weather-beaten landscape-the

illustrational clarity, the crystalline light and the abundant detail of a

down-home naturalism-is totally absent from Mr. Walker’s paintings. Inducements

to nostalgia are nil.

What one encounters instead in the artist’s latest exhibition- John Walker: A Winter in Maine, 2003-2004 ,

at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Me.-are huge, sprawling

expressionist canvases and smaller oil sketches on paper that give the observer

what’s best described as the clamdigger’s view of the Maine landscape. In this

view, the terrain tends to be muddy, the atmosphere overcast, the sky a distant

band of mottled light, and the boundaries separating land from sea all but

overwhelmed by a painterly virtuosity that’s easily mistaken for outright

abstraction. Yet as the eye habituates itself to these bold, highly charged

depictions, what comes into focus are some of the most extraordinary landscape

paintings of the modern era. Not since John Marin burst upon the American art

scene in the 1920′s and 30′s have paintings of Maine succeeded to a comparable

degree in setting a new standard for pictorial innovation in the art world at

large.

Like many Maine painters, Mr. Walker is, as Mainers say, “from

away”-in his case, originally from Britain; he was born in Birmingham in 1939 and

studied at the Birmingham College of Art in the 1950′s. Then came Paris, where

he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in the 1960′s, and New York, where he came under the sway

of the regnant Abstract Expressionists.

Nowadays Mr. Walker divides his working life between a coastal property in

South Bristol, Me., the mise en scène

of his current work, and Boston University, where he’s a member of the art

faculty. (He often brings his students to Maine as part of their course of

instruction.) In New York, his work can often be seen at Knoedler & Company.

It’s sometimes said of the Abstract Expressionist painters that

they could be divided into two classes: those who put everything-which is to

say, more than merely enough-into their pictures, and those who left out as

much as possible while still giving us something to look at in what remained.

Mr. Walker unquestionably belongs to the first category, for his appetite for

overloading his canvases is unstinting, and he has found in the dour

attractions of a muddy bay in South Bristol a correlative in nature that allows

him to create a landscape art in a medium that is not only reminiscent of the

viscous facture often seen in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, but at

times actually incorporates mud itself-or what’s sometimes called “sea cake” in

the titles of his paintings-into the painted surface. What Mr. Walker’s “sea

cake” paintings recall for me are the lines from the “Little Gidding” section

of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets : “Dead

water and dead sand / Contending for the upper hand.”

For Mr. Walker, mud has clearly acquired an aesthetic, if not

indeed a mystical significance. In a recent interview, Bruce Brown, one of the

curators of the current exhibition, asked him, “Technically, how do you get the

mud to stick to the canvas and why do it?” This was Mr. Walker’s response:

“I’ve experimented with mixing various mediums with the mud. Basically dirt

turns into cement, really. The fact that I take in these beautiful

surroundings-the muddiest, smelliest, dirtiest cove to paint in-allows me to

get beyond the beauty of the tourist sort of Maine. Mud has been a reoccurring

theme in my paintings for years …. I have certainly always thought of paint as

being colored mud. As you know, while I was involved with the first group of

landscape paintings, I was concurrently painting my father’s recollections of

the First World War where mud was the theme-not only his recollection, but

almost everyone’s from that war. I like the fact that mud is dirty. If I’m

painting and a clammer comes along and digs those big, dirty holes right in

front of me, I truly believe that what I’m doing on canvas is just a pastiche.

I really am moved when I see that his is the artwork and mine is just an

impression. It always shocks me that these people come along and dig great

holes and walk away from it and it looks just wonderful.”

Well, as I say, this is no longer

the Maine of Winslow Homer and the Wyeths. John

Walker: A Winter in Maine, 2003-2004 remains on view at the Center for Maine

Contemporary Art in Rockport through Aug. 29, and then travels to the

University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor (Sept. 24, 2004, to Jan. 8, 2005).