John Walker’s paintings are more or less impossible to categorize. He is an abstract artist whose work resonates with subtle references. At various times, his canvases have been loaded with elusive images, coded messages, symbolic forms, patterns, and on occasion, readable texts, conjured up with dense pigment, now sensuous, now gritty, and full-bodied color, now brilliant, now moody. We are attracted by the apparently abstract, forthright whole, then focus on suggestive shapes. We may even imagine that we have deciphered a hard-to-grasp reference, but we soon abandon the effort to interpret and return to contemplating Walker’s unpredictable configurations, robust surfaces, energetic gestures, and saturated hues. Nonetheless, we remain convinced that the bold composition before us is entirely specific, despite its deliberate ambiguities.
Walker, British-born and widely traveled, has been based in the U.S. for many years. For about the last two decades, his dominant theme has been the coast of Maine where he lives, especially the unstable zone where land and sea meet. Given the evidence of his wideranging previous work, it’s no surprise that while Walker’s Maine paintings are intensely evocative of place, they have nothing to do with the imagery traditionally associated with that picturesque artists’ haven. Despite the sense of the character of a rocky coastline with its mud flats and inlets, despite powerful echoes of the restless motion of waves and windwhipped water, and despite titles that sometimes provide clues to locations or events that might have triggered the works, Walker’s efforts are never literal. There’s none of Winslow Homer’s meteorological accuracy, for example. Homer seems to capture never-to-berepeated moments, showing us exactly what the sea looked liked at a particular time of day, at a particular season, in particular weather. Walker may allude obliquely to the physical characteristics of his region of coastal Maine but he doesn’t depict those characteristics. Rather, he invents unexpected visual metaphors for his perceptions.
Homer, for all his painterly bravura, makes his medium all-but disappear into his evocations of light-struck breaking waves and churning surf. Walker – as we expect of a modernist painter – celebrates his chosen medium. His lush surfaces and generous gestures remind us of the artifice of painting and of the presence of his hand in constructing the image before us. Walker clearly loves the juiciness of oil paint and relishes the act of moving it across the canvas. Rather than dissembling his medium, in the service of illusionism, as a traditional painter like Homer does, Walker makes the materiality of paint and the fiction of painting into abstract equivalents for his experience of place. He seems to encapsulate not the appearance of the ocean shore, but its smells and temperature, its mutability, the wind, and the sound of the surf, transubstantiated into an abstract language of paint. Walker’s coast is not idealized. Recent paintings, according to their titles, were provoked by such vicissitudes as an algae bloom that created a red tide or the discoloration of pollution.
The complexity and modulated palette of these works are noticeably different than those in which crisp contrasts of blue and white become equivalents for bright seaside light. (It’s worth pointing out that a series of earlier works, striking for their rich but uningratiating color and aggressive surfaces, took as their point of departure neither Homer’s translucent breakers, nor the sun-dappled sea punctuated by islands beloved of more recent painters such as John Marin or Fairfield Porter, nor the “pointed firs” itemized by writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, but rather, bleak, wintry mudflats, patterned with the holes left by clam-diggers.) The declarative stripes and zigzags that populate Walker’s recent works, made with emphatic, nested strokes of a loaded brush, can be read in many ways. They announce the abstractness of the picture, asserting its existence as a confrontational object with their generous scale and unabashed geometry. For anyone aware that Walker’s history includes an extended sojourn in Australia, the repetitive, varied patterns of the stripes and angles might provoke associations with Aboriginal or tribal art of the Pacific, which sometimes had repercussions in his earlier work. But these elements take on other meanings, in relation to coastal Maine.
The insistent but irregular rhythms of the nested stripes can be seen as graphic versions of the changing rhythms of how the ocean meets the shore, as waves or tide, while the dizzying repetitions of the strokes can be interpreted as distillations of the hypnotic effect of breakers. And more. Or less. We all, depending on our experience of working harbors and coastal New England, at different times of year and under different conditions, will have different associations with Walker’s recent paintings. We may read white patches as winter ice or associate a vertical grid with the dockside accouterments of commercial fishing. But Walker’s recent works require no explication or explanation. They engage us and retain our interest because of their powerful presence, their surprising structure, their intense color, and their fascinating rhythms. They address our emotions and our intellect, wordlessly. What else we bring to them is up to each of us.