Sea Cake/Winter No. IV,
oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in.
1970 - 2008
Nielsen Gallery, Boston
March 1 - April 5, 2008
Charred, ashes, a swath of detritus spread across miles and miles of a scorched earth, flotsam and jetsam littering a muddy shore, left behind by the tide or a storm, it doesn’t matter. The elephant in the room, the desperate inner child, the man on fire; these all come to mind standing in the glow or wake or shadow of John Walker’s always epic and often towering paintings. On the other hand we get the kind of chalky radiance of frescoed starlight, the closest thing to Giotto these eyes have seen in this world, in this place, in this muddy messed up twenty-first century where less and less is what it seems, where real, the real, is anathema and truth is a joke, scoffed at, ridiculed, kicked in the gutter. And for what?
That’s probably what John Walker would like to know. Can anyone tell him? Instead he’s getting hammered, a hammer the size of a wrecking ball, driving him into the ground, driving a shaft the size of a tree trunk down his throat, telling him that lies are truth and shit is fresh cream.
These many years, these many paintings, tell this story. The call of starlight; the promise of starlight. The shit/mud/magma/primordial ooze that we stand in as we look to the stars. The shit/mud/magma/primordial ooze of a species that cares only about outward things, about power and pretense and position and posturing and primacy and prestige. That pees on everything. He is holding up a mirror. He is holding up a lamp. A lighthouse on the distant shore. Yes, it is shit. Embrace the shit if it brings you closer to the earth. Lie down in it. Lie down in darkness. But look to the heavens. Look to our better selves. Look for salvation and light.
John Walker carries his paintings in his paintings along with everything else in his life. They are of course part of his story, part of his personal mythology, so why wouldn’t they be there. Bits of shapes, words, figures of sorts that reference the things that matter to him, scars from loss and from experience, like falling from a tree or being scorned by a loved one or being bitten by a snake; and wrinkles on our face, smiles or frowns, that we get from what life washes onto our shores or rains down on us. These are all there in the paintings; relics, touchstones, stains, souvenirs, heirlooms, mementos. All the things that shape his life.
There are also his beliefs, his dreams, his hopes, his heartbreaks. It is a kind of world according to John Walker. Not much different from what we get from every artist, really, but today we’re talking about him. Because he has been there, been around, from Birmingham to Melbourne and back again. Because he has been painting and hanging it out there and leaving his mark and defying the odds and getting up and getting knocked down and getting back up again and painting and painting and painting. And it is all in the paint; trapped in its amber, laid out on its mud flats, singing its song, for all who will listen whether we're listening or not!
The first time I saw one of his paintings was almost thirty years ago. Circa 1979. A painter friend of mine and I were looking through a gallery window. A closed gallery somewhere in downtown New York. This is what I remember. We were awed by his painting. We knew his work and he was already legend. The painting was one of the monument shape series. The sort of erect phallic obelisk in the landscape that looks like something broken, at once organic and geometric. It was a figure/ground of sorts. Figure in a landscape. He wasn’t the only person doing this at that time. Other painters come to mind. But it was almost like a sculptor’s painting. Strong, powerful, solid. And yet it was also abstract. Fiercely abstract. Fiercely ephemeral. Real bravado paint; juicy, sensuous, wet, flying. Constable/Turner meets Brancusi/Stonehenge. Again, landscape and figure--horizontal and vertical. Don Quixote's windmills (the later paintings invert the shape, now female, of rebirth and resurrection, pushing down instead of up, below the high horizon--Ahab's white whale, or the pass at Thermopylae).
Over the years he has found new reasons to paint, new memories, new shapes, new dreams, new landscapes, and his legend has grown as the mythology inside the work has grown. His oeuvre has always been intense. And intensely abstract in the way that we come to them. They just act abstract. Maybe skulls, lambs, words, horizons, but abstract. They are landscape but they are flat. They have light and depth but they seem to be much more about surface and texture. They are thick and heavy and dark but they shine. These are not qualities unique to the world of painting. These are not paradoxes unique to the world of painting. Spanish painting comes to mind. Goya, El Greco, Velasquez, even Picasso. They were not afraid of darkness and they used it to make light. So does Walker. If as Richard Tuttle once reminded me, black speaks about white, and despair speaks about hope, etc, and viceversa, then this is the ground we stand on with Walker. His sprawling scatological crusts of dark paint frame the light, his little crumbs of rainbow lead us down a crevasse.
Is there rage in these paintings? It causes tectonic shifts beneath their surface, and strikes out of nowhere like a mid-western tornado. Is there longing, and poetry, and a gentle hand? Surely. Like God or Shakespeare, Walker feels all things, and gives all things. Love is like the dew, it settles on the horse turd and the rose alike--Larry McMurtry once wrote something to that effect. In John Walker’s paintings the love also falls on both. We stand before his “frescoes,” his Giottos, we look up at them, like we watch Rembrandt’s side of beef, or Lear or Macbeth splayed before us on the stage:Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We are happy to witness this in the paintings. It is his plight, and in the end it is our plight. Life is a dubious experiment, as Jung said. Can we find peace with this? Should we find peace with this? Or should we be trying to talk to the manager, or whoever’s in charge? After all, what the hell is going on? Right? I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore! Help us, Dante, help us Tom Cruise. What is this Divine Comedy? What is this existential joke/nightmare? John Walker serves up a slab of paint. It is as cathartic as Aeschylus and as searing as the deep blue sea. It rocks us. We walk away changed, and no matter whether he or anyone else knows it, we remember. Thank you, John Walker, and rock on!
ADDISON PARKS 2008
After circling the Back Bay for at least ten minutes a solitary parking spot at last presented itself not far from the Nielsen Gallery where we planned to see the new John Walker show. It was on a street that had to be cleared by 4p.m. for the commuter rush traffic. We assumed we would be out of Nielsen by then. It is a bargain with the devil, so to speak, when there is nothing else to be had on Newbury St, to be tempted by those empty spots. The price you pay if you overshoot 4pm is to have your car towed by some ex-con who'll extort a hefty sum from you as well as put a dent in your car. Probably best to pay for the garage at the Pru, but in terms of benefit the convenience of being near Nielsen trumps the risk.
At the gallery we found both Nina Nielsen and John Baker right around the front desk andit appeared in a jovial mood. They admitted to having just finished a good meal at Louis's accompanied by an excellent wine. John Wronoski, at whose bookstore we had spent the morning perusing and purchasing signed first editions was introduced. Addison and I tried to convey what we had just experienced at his home/business, that left me close to hyperventilating before the signatures of the some of the greatest figures in the history of philosophy and literature. Somewhat similar to the" guess who I saw" syndrome when you encounter on the street someone who only existed for you in the movies-- we were beside ourselves with excitement.
Books by Musil, Celine, Hamsun ,Nietsche, Hegel all signed by the authors and often given to equally important individuals,e.g. a copy of" The Waste Land" signed by T.S. Eliot to Paul Valery. Time for a moment was "not" as all history collapsed into a kind of cosmic cocktail party where characters from different eras were taken off the shelves to rub shoulders. The most impressive find among many was a manuscript of Kazantzakis's poem "The Odyssey" hand written by the author that looked in its perfection as though God had dictated it to him first draft requiring no corrections.
Nina was more open today; which is not to say that she is usually not open but typically reserved before the needy artists who frequent her gallery (but thankfully not smug like most gallery owners). To their credit both of them are unique in their ability to get excited about the work they exhibit, talk with visitors about the work meaningfully and see it as something accessible not emblematic of some cultural superiority, an attitude prevalent in NYC, where the dealers and the artist exist in some" lofty" space beyond the viewer and both have pulled the ladder up behind them.
Today, they were very open, in fact they appeared vulnerable. This was their temple and they the priests and in such a context one rarely expresses doubt. They were more than just interested in discussing the work; behind the questions about what we thought about Walker's work there was some trepidation which lead to questions about the meaning of life and made me believe that these paintings, which created a kind of twilight world, once entered into, did not allow for an easy return back to our diurnal world. What should have been a cathartic experience which allowed the viewer to find strength in the encounter with the void had put the usually confident gallery owners in a state of fear and trembling. Interestingly enough this darkness is now part of Berthot's work, another gallery artist, though in his case it is more of an exercise in the sublime than in terror.
Walker is literallly trying to embrace the very sorrow that afflicts him; expressed through his use of real mud taken from the Maine mud flats near where he paints. Pictorially, all the paintings are similar: recognizable objects have fallen away, a wisp of light lingers on the horizon which is always at the top of the picture plane. Engulfing the viewer in the lower two thirds of the painting are the mud-flats which are indistinguishable from the dark of night..I can't decide which of the following messages he wishes to convey: is it a mud bath and therefore healing or night and quick sand that allows "no exit." Or a biblical lamentation about our mortality with a kind of from mud to mud refrain. As the trajectory that leads from natality wains mortality has the upper hand. This is clearly work about the downward slope of the cycle.
I remember once seeing a show by one of his protégées which is very similar in style and content though ultimately Johnny Walker light to Johnny Walker Black. I thought of titling the show "Low Tide Languor;" that meditative space on the beach at slack tide where you dwell on your place in the natural cycle of birth and death. The mood is often one of sweet acquiescence which lends itself to lyricism and is the favorite of poets who intone in that elegiac manner that can turn any words no matter how banal into "poetry." In the case of Walker you have the low tide, the retreat of life but you sensed that this is not passive acquiescence. He's in crisis; the tide is coming and it will not bring him back to the shore. Is the best strategy at this stage to embrace the twilight, to exult in the forces that limit man as part of our human condition. I guess I left with more questions than answers. But whatever the ultimate meaning of the work there was no doubt in my mind that Nina and John were now engulfed in the painting's crepuscular light.
The conversation took an interesting turn when Nina, who had already mentioned Camus as relevant to Walker, tried to see her artists as deconstructionists, implying that there ultimately was no difference between existentialism and the more recent deconstructionist movement out of France. At the time I couldn't respond in a meaningful way but it appeared misguided. If we see both existentialists (e.g.Sartre) and deconstructionists (e.g.Derrida) as undercutting the primacy of thought and reason (the cogito ergo sum of Descartes)as a basis for man's identity, then they are similar. And Nina is right. However, the deconstructionists doubt the whole nexus of being and nothingness which in a general sense is the subject of Walker's painting, and see it as just another attempt to resurrect and dramatize the over-inflated Western ego, which they are trying to rout out wherever they find it. Abandon the whole project all together, they seem to say. Walkler wont abandon that project;he stays close to it-quaking before his inevitable extinction. A strong poet to borrow Harold Bloom's term, he faces and drinks deeply of that" dark night" with courage.
The artist at Nielsen that intrigues me most is Profirio DiDonna...He was neither an existentialist, a deconstruction, nor a rationalist but god forbid he believed there is a kind of logos, just the way which things line up and connect.It has a tentative quality to it , that the dots create a kind of order but not a hardwired one like Mondrian. It were as though he was listening to the order, letting it waft over him or better yet trying to touch it dot by dot. Or just expressing a kind of belief that it is there, which is Addison's take on him. Of course I feel closest to him as an artist. In his earlier work of vases there is an energy hovering around the object, something shaping it caressing it. It is a mystical insight . I remember once my daughter at the age of five when we encountered a dead bird in a park in Italy said not to worry because God was holding it in the palm of his hand. It also akin to certain theosophical ideas about forces both etheric and astral that support our physical being.
Joan Snyder interests me as well. In her work she has created a self that is prickly and difficult; sort of like the selves of Beckett's "Endgame" who devoid of hope still have a snarly desire to survive(though I just noticed in the recent "Art in America" that her new work is dealing with tears and sorrow). It was as though she was telling the deconstructionists that there is a solid core to the self and it is indestructible, especially when pushed into a corner-- it strikes back and bites. I remember first meeting her at Yale where she came as a visiting artist. She came to my studio as she was making the rounds of all the MFA candidates studios. On the floor I had tossed a drawing of a dead blue jay I had found on my doorstep. She proclaimed that it was the first authentic work she had seen at Yale. Something that dealt with feelings and not some over-weening ambition to make Al Held clones. She was supposed to stay a semester and quit the next week. A woman of her convictions.
The conversation which had broken off into groups and was already past those first emotion-filled moments suddenly came to an end for me when I realized it was four o'clock and our car full of signed first editions was about to be towed. I did an about face and hurdled down Newbury S, putting my out of shape body to the test to witness the car in front of me being towed off. My car had to yet been ticketed. Sometimes one has to pay tribute to the trolls for intellectual musings beyond the ordinary. Today would not be one of those times. We stayed above the fray.