“Inspiration” is a word we use in the most casual fashion, but it originally meant being under the direct influence of God. For the artist, John R. Walker, it has retained that significance. As a practising Christian, Walker believes there are paintings that are divinely inspired, the breath of God having touched something in the artist’s soul as he stood in silent communion with the landscape. Personally, I’m more in tune with the madcap philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, who describes himself as a “Christian atheist”, but I can see exactly what Walker means when he talks, haltingly, about the spiritual aspects of painting.
Whether we be mystics or materialists, the survey, John R. Walker: Journeys and Return, at the Orange Regional Gallery, reveals an artist who has found a way to paint what he feels about a landscape, rather than settling for a depiction based on simple observation. Walker is very far from being an Impressionist, but there is a loose affinity with the great Neo-Impressionist, Georges Seurat, who covered his canvases with thousands of tiny dots.
Seurat had a scientific explanation for the mechanics of vision, noting the way colour and form were constructed in the retina. Walker can recognise this phenomenon but feels there must be more to it. In his recent work he has become a dedicated exponent of the short, sharp dab. Being anything but a purist, he combines these touches with washy applications of pale colour and meandering lines made by holding the brush at the very end, letting it stumble drunkenly across the canvas.
Paintings such as Eagle Spirit Vathiwarta and Eagle Spirit Vathiwarta I (both 2021), are like nothing else in Australian art, laden with seemingly incompatible associations. Although indisputably landscapes, these works have a powerful abstract dimension, as Walker sketches in the bare outlines of the rocky Flinders Ranges and fills in the blanks with a storm of small marks, smears, splashes, and drawn-out lines. Despite this frantic activity the mountains feel transparent, as if we can look right through them to the void of the canvas. The resulting paradox is a mountainous landscape that is simultaneously monumental and insubstantial.
We are accustomed to seeing mountains as solid grey hunks of rock, but Walker treats them as if they were mirages, or buzzing clusters of atoms. Here he is closer to Indigenous artists, or perhaps to those ancient Chinese landscape painters who could convey the bulk of a mountain with a few swipes of the brush. The difference is that Walker doesn’t share the Chinese preoccupation with the void, or negative space. He is no devotee of that ‘emptiness that is also a fullness’, but a gestural painter who thrives on detail.
Ultimately these landscapes are like vast swirling fields of energy, which may be the way Walker experiences vistas he absorbs for days on end, jotting down his impressions in gouache in Chinese folding sketchbooks. The large canvases that follow in the studio are products of memory, with the sketchbooks providing structural guidelines.
If one compares these pictures with the earliest work in the show, the nine panelled Shoalhaven Ridge (2001), one can track the way Walker’s approach has changed over the past 20 years. Every square centimetre of the earlier work is covered in paint, with densely packed ‘close-ups of the bush alterating with long-and-medium range views of clouds and horizon. By any standards this is an impressive work, but it leaves one completely unprepared for an even larger set of seven panels on the adjoining wall. The Oratunga Burra Suite from 2017 is as remarkable for what is left out as for what is included. Large swathes of each panel are virtually empty. Trees, scrub and bits of human debris are reduced to the most minimal of presences, just enough to allow us to flesh out each scene in our imaginations.
It’s a startling contrast, assisted by an exhibition space designed by Sam Marshall that allows works to be perfectly lit and presented in the most sympathetic fashion. The Oratunga Burra Suite feels transformed from the last time I saw it, in the 2018 Adelaide Biennial, although this may be partly due to the cumulative impact of a solo exhibition in which we see an artist determined to keep pushing the boundaries.
Among the most striking works in this survey are the paintings Walker made in response to the 2019 bushfires that ravaged the area around his home in Braidwood. Fireground 2 (for Matty H) (2020), first seen in the 2020 Wynne Prize, is such a convincing rendition of a bushfre at close quarters one can almost hear the crackling and roaring of the flames, which appear as thin, spidery traces. Most of the painting depicts billowing clouds of smoke, brown at the top and cream-coloured at the bottom, flecked with soot. It’s not based on first-hand experience of the fires, but on the stories of one of the fire-fighters. The work couldn’t be more vivid had Walker sat painting with his nose to the blaze.
From the drama of the bushfire pictures we turn to a series of images of flat, empty fields in which Walker has set himself the task of making a successful composition from places such as the Hay Plains, that are the very opposite of picturesque. The pick of the bunch is West of Wilcannia II (2017), which features on the cover of the excellent catalogue the gallery has published.
A scene that may seem monotonous to the naked eye, is transformed into a work of art that compells us to look and keep looking. Three quarters of the canvas is covered in yellow ochre, applied in squirming, nervous twists of the brush, ventilated by slivers of blank canvas. The top quarter of the picture features the palest of skies. A horizon sloping gently upwards from right to left, exerts a disproportionate influence on how we read the work – a line of 180 degrees wouldn’t have been the same.
The bushfires and a flat, distant horizon come together in the small painting, Firecloud (2020), which shows a bright puff of vapour hovering over a dull, yellow-grey landscape. It captures the withering heat of the fires, rising like a mushroom cloud with the same combination of beauty and menace.
Journeys and Return is an outstanding show that lifts John R. Walker to the first rank of living Australian landscape painters. All those things usually associated with his work – those messy, scruffy surfaces; the alternation between manic detail and obdurate emptiness – are revealed as secret sources of power. The messiness reflects a mentality that combines a heartfelt spirituality with a pantheistic appreciation of the landscape. The other ingredient is a voracious curiosity that has led Walker to read widely about the history, topography and geology of the places he has visited. His methods may be intuitive, but they are informed, in a deep way, by a fund of background knowledge.
This show is one of a succession of artist surveys the Orange Regional Gallery has hosted over the past few years, complete with a catalogue and a short documentary. Director, Brad Hammond, and his team have realised that a steady turnover of original, accessible exhibitions is the surest way of growing audiences and supporters, even if you’re 250 kms from Sydney. Indeed, Orange’s dynamic exhibition program is an indictment of the complacency of Sydney’s public galleries. While it was once possible to see shows by leading Australian artists by crossing the Domain, nowadays it’s necessary to cross the Blue Mountains.
John R. Walker: Journeys and Return
Orange Regional Gallery, 25 November 2023 – 21 January 2024
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December, 2023