John R Walker: Terroir Big Land Pictures

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John R Walker terroir big land pictures

John R Walker terroir big land pictures

14 March to 27 April, 2014

John R Walker is represented by Utopia Art Sydney Š Utopia Art Sydney and Orange Regional Gallery

this exhibition is dedicated to Alan Sisley 1952 - 2014

Dawn Tantulean Creek, 2006, archival oil on polyester, 188 x 483cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.


It is with great pleasure that Orange Regional Gallery presents Terroir Big Land Pictures by John R Walker. The exhibition comprises thirteen large canvases and one concertina drawing spanning a fourteen year period. Bringing these works together in one exhibition provides a regional audience with a rare opportunity to experience the power and depth of Walker’s work.

Take the painting The Dry Dam Bedervale 2004, as just one example. This painting is seared into my mind as one of the iconic Australian paintings of our time and points to what we are facing at an environmental level. While it is an extraordinary painting of a particular dam during a particular drought it also can be seen as harbinger of things to come. These are landscapes in the traditional sense but with an unusual psychological frequency.

Many people are familiar with Walker’s exploration of the landscape where he lives in Braidwood NSW. He is an artist with a sustained and expansive vision who presents us with new ways of seeing our surroundings. He does this by reaching beyond mere stylistic interpretations of the landscape.

Our gallery director of twenty three years, Alan Sisley (who passed away recently) immediately recognised how significant an exhibition of these large scale works would be for Orange Regional Gallery. It is sad that he never got to see the final result but he obviously already saw it in another sense.

A close look at Walker’s work reveals how he pushes the physical possibilities of paint as a medium. He employs the full gamut including slurries, washes, chunks and crusts of paint. His paint takes on the physical qualities of the things they describe rather than simply representing them. Any painter will know that this is a highly intuitive process with its own intelligence and Walker has clearly evolved his from years of direct experience with his materials.

Orange Regional Gallery would like to thank John R Walker for his outstanding work, Christopher Hodges of Utopia Art Sydney for assisting with the exhibition on all levels and Anne Sanders who has been a constant support.

Walker meets the Australian landscape on its own harsh terms and doesn’t seek to fix or beautify it. These are tough, urgent and compelling pictures.

We would especially like to thank Andrew Sayers for his poetic and insightful essay. He gives a wonderful account of Walker’s intimate connection to the landscape, which informs his work. Bradley Hammond Orange Regional Gallery

Quaternary Gully, 2004, archival oil on polyester, 3 panels, 173.5cm x 183 (left panel)courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney; 182.5 x 220cm (middle panel) courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney; 171 x 183.5c

cm (right panel) collection of Aletha and Michael Hoy.

The Dry Dam Bedervale, 2004, archival oil on polyester, 190.5 x 199cm. The Chroma Collection.

On Doughboy Hill

Andrew Sayers

My God, stand by me, Above all inspire me, So that in my work as a painter I solve the problems of the materials. Giorgio de Chirico, 1945

Doughboy Hill is a gentle rise about twenty-five kilometres to the north-west of Braidwood. On Doughboy Hill, boulders push up through a grassy ridge, they are rounded and the same colour as the sheep in the paddocks. Although it doesn’t seem particularly high, from Doughboy Hill you can see a long way. Your eye takes in a sweep along this part of the Great Dividing Range, from the Budawang range in the north-east to the area where the Shoalhaven River originates in wooded hills in the south. In between lies the plain through which the river twists on its way to the coast. The conical shape of Mount Gillamatong marks the locality of the Braidwood township in this panorama. This is John Walker’s landscape. For over a decade he has painted here, lived here and has become deeply familiar with this place. He moved to Braidwood in 2003 and paints in a big studio behind his house in the village. What is remarkable about the landscape that we can see from Doughboy Hill – or indeed from many of the hills around the town – is the way it hides in its folds the places that he has painted over these years. Beyond Braidwood the terrain

drops sharply down to the coast. This escarpment is heavily forested and creates the green shade of Monga. Contrasted with this deep green is colder grazing land on top. The upland plateau is scored with deep ravines – erosion gullies and thin creeks such as Tantulean, surrounded by an open bush where you can see the structure of the landscape. When John talks about the landscape and when he paints it, even on a large scale, it is never in sweeping or general terms. Rather, he sees the landscape as a collection of sites, each one having its own particular character. The title of this exhibition, Terroir, is borrowed from the vigneron; it encapsulates the idea that a particular site, with unique characteristics of soil, altitude and micro-climate, will give rise to a distinctive wine. So, too will a particular locality create a unique landscape. Some of the places Walker explores have been determined geologically. Granite intrusions, for example, have created the rounded rocks and rills of Doughboy Hill. In describing the landscape, the painter elaborates on the beds of rock through which the rivers and creeks have cut over millions of years. He points out a pale scar in the distance – a quarry in an ancient sandhill, part of the sedimentary prehistory of the area.

Site, 2011, archival oil on polyester, 4 panels, 177 x 776cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

The revelations of geology are best seen in paintings such as Quaternary Gully and Crust. In both of these paintings the longer-term movements of the earth are in the process of engulfing the puny debris of human activity – the old car bodies and fencing wire dumped in gullies, the rotting wooden fence posts. There are other aspects of the landscape besides its basic geomorphology that stimulate the artist’s imagination. Aboriginal trade routes criss-crossed this region, connecting the coast to the east with the uplands of the Snowy Mountains to the south-west of Braidwood. The subsequent colonial history of the place, settled early by pastoralists, is embodied in names remembering the distant battlefronts of the empire. It survives in references to old forms of the everyday such as the pigeon-house that Cook saw in the shape of Dithol, the most beautiful mountain in the Budawangs, and the doughboy loaves suggested by the granite tors on this hill. (Think, too, about the many ‘sugarloaf’ mountains that can be found across Australia, ghostly relics of antique bakery). This exhibition, as a whole, is a collection of sites, but it is also a series of episodes. It has temporal, as well as historical, dimensions.

Walker is an episodic artist. He prefers formats that in some way embody an unfolding. This is an obvious and inevitable feature of the ‘concertina’ sketchbooks that allow him to encompass a landscape subject in two or three pages – or to allow it to spread over six, seven or a dozen sheets. Yet even on a large scale, the multi-panel paintings with their subtly different viewpoints of the same motif, suggest an unfolding view – seeing over time, experienced from multiple angles and distances. Looking at a painting such as Site, it occurs to the viewer that his approach could be described as cinematic – long view cuts to close-up, sweeping shot cuts to stills, a picture builds through different angles. It is not surprising that the artist talks about his early enthusiasm for film. Yet, he remains a painter, not a film-maker, working with the demands of his chosen medium, through thick and thin. His engagement with paint has now taken place over four decades and through perseverance he has found a new way to express the particular qualities of the Australian landscape. This exhibition, which brings together a number of Walker’s large-scale paintings gives us an unprecedented opportunity

Winter in the Fire Forest 3, 2012, archival oil on polyester, 183 x 161cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

A Road, A Gate and A Forest, 2008, archival oil on polyester, 180 x 484cm. Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Daylight Moon, 2008, archival oil on polyester, 240 x 181cm. Collection of Jacqui and James Erskine.

to discover the unique qualities of his vision. What are these qualities? Firstly, I think all landscape artists are trying to find ways to let us in to the experience. In the classical European tradition, perspective led us into landscape and the landscape was framed (or staged) for the viewer. John Walker’s way of leading us into the landscape is more akin to the art of traditional Chinese painters (he is a great devotee of Chinese art). We are invited to make a contemplative journey, to take a walk, through the landscape. As with traditional Chinese landscape painting, the eye cannot encompass the whole – we must find a pathway. In so doing we will be invited to stop and take in certain episodes on our journey. The reference here to Chinese painting prompts another reflection on a unique quality of his landscape vision – the constant interplay of elaborated space and void space. A painting such as Daylight Moon centres around a kind of ambiguity in the treatment of space. In this and in all of Walker’s large-scale paintings, there is a back-and-forth dialogue between thin, transparent colour coming up against fatty, gelatinous pigment. He likes these transitions – in some way they reflect his attraction to transitions in the landscape – between

wet and dry, clearing and enclosing forest, one paddock and a different one, the separations marked by colour change or a fenceline. If, in this analysis of John Walker’s painting we are navigating by ‘triangulating’ the points of his art, a further point from which to start is the tradition of Australian landscape painting. In conversation with Philip Guston, John Cage mused that ‘when you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then if you are lucky even you leave.’ The landscape painter in Australia starts with some artists already in the room – Streeton, Arthur Boyd, Fred Williams, perhaps others. They eventually leave and the artist pursues his singular vision. While we can see Walker’s acknowledged debt to Arthur Boyd’s Shoalhaven (in a painting such as Hollow Tree) and he talks about the initial stimulus of Streeton’s masterpiece Fire’s On – we can see these earlier exemplars as starting points. What has come to be unique in John Walker’s own vision is an honesty to a kind of ugliness, or ungainliness, in the landscape. It is a land of thinned-out, droughty and degraded soils, thorny,

Crust, 2012, archival oil on polyester, 184.5 x 477cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

introduced bushes and trees, collapsed barbed wire, rusty chicken wire, dumped tyres and cars. It is the very opposite of a landcare vision. A painting in this exhibition, Site, is true to much of rural Australia. When I first looked closely at Walker’s landscape paintings many years ago, the word ’visceral’ kept coming to mind. Yet, whilst that word captures something of the bodily response that is in the works, it fails to express the more cerebral quality in Walker’s paintings. The visceral is in dialogue with the contemplative – the body and the mind work together. The best expression of this interplay is found in the large multipanelled paintings that embody the rhythms of the day – from before dawn to high noon. Dawn, Tantulean Creek captures perfectly the sense of light-shift before the sun grips the landscape. It manages to be both a gutsy and a tremendously delicate picture. In addition to considering this painterly approach, it is worthwhile talking about colour. How does one describe Walker’s palette – with its preferences for pinks, crimsons, blue-greys, a sharp emerald green and the gummy translucent brown of gel medium? It seems, perhaps, an unlikely palette with which to express the Australian landscape? The key, I think, is to see

it as the palette of a painter who loves flesh and who has painted flesh all his life. This identification of the landscape with the flesh happens at many levels in Walker’s work. On the wall of his studio is a reproduction of Courbet’s The Origin of the World. In this striking painting, the world originates with the body. And in our bodies, in our biological selves, is the origin of the way we see the world. The more a painter understands this, the closer he will get to expressing the way we experience and feel our way in the landscape. It would be superficial to take Courbet’s painting as a clue to the artist’s fascination with gullies and folds and cracks in the landscape. The deeper meaning of the relationship between the artist’s corporeal response and his landscape subjects is hinted at in the painting Quaternary Gully. The work takes its title from a poem by Judith Wright. The poem is called For the Quaternary Age and is a meditation on how the earth’s most recent geological epoch created us and all that is in us humans. It is a profound poem in which the poet responds to an aerial view of the Australian landscape by ‘staring downwards into me’. I think this encapsulates Walker’s approach – when he paints he is staring downwards into himself.

Hollow Tree, 2001, archival oil on polyester, 180 x 280cm. The Chroma Collection.

Parched, 2006, archival oil on polyester, 183.5 x 331cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

Judith Wright, who lived close to and in Braidwood in her later years, died at the end of the twentieth century, only a few years before the idea of the anthropocene gained serious currency. The anthropocene, the geological age in which we are now living, is the reversal of all that has gone before. The landscape and its great forces no longer make us – we are making the landscape, the weather, the atmosphere. In one sense the idea of the anthropocene is a literal expression of what artists such as John Walker have always known – that we can make the landscape only through what we know; it is made manifest only through the culturally conditioned human frame. Terroir is an opportunity to pause and look around us at the major preoccupations of John Walker in his maturity as a painter. The exhibition

is akin to talking with the artist as we walk together through his landscape. We share his very active way of seeing, his emotional responses to the truths concealed in the landscape. Yet, like all of the true artists who reveal something that is there, right before our eyes, he does it, ultimately and necessarily through a tough engagement with the materials of the painter.

Dry Land Gully, 2006, archival oil on polyester, 177 x 417cm. Collection of Jacqui and James Erskine.

Shed Interior, 2010, archival oil on polyester, 177 x 475cm. Courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.

John R Walker terroir big land pictures

Orange Regional Gallery 14 March to 27 April, 2014 This catalogue is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Essay: Andrew Sayers Design: Utopia Art Sydney Photography: Utopia Art Sydney

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