New York

John Walker

Betty Cunningham

New York has certainly been seeing a great deal of European art this season, and what has been most interesting about it all is the intensity with which European artists seem to be involved in a resurgence of that old favorite avant-garde debate: the continuing validity of painting. At one extreme a figure like Jannis Kounellis still finds it necessary to display the charred remains of a palette next to an installation of drawings which on their own have sufficient authority to generate excitement. Or again, younger Italian artists like Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente have turned to painting as the only possible vehicle for their sophisticated manipulations of images and styles ripe with the burden of nostalgia. The work of Chia and Clemente is fraught with contradiction, caught between a yearning for a lost innocence and a desire to participate in a cultural grandeur which has now faded. This contradiction cannot easily be appeased, but it can at least be quieted through the expedient use of paint on canvas, the one artistic discipline with a rhetoric large enough to accommodate every shade of sentimentality.

Within the parameters roughly marked out here there is ample room for a new generation of painters to keep busy. One must expect to find artists carefully filling in all the odd corners and overlooked spaces of modernist practice. And, one must also hope that there are a handful of tougher individuals willing to face down the mythology and use painting as one set of conventions among the many conventions of representation which hold sway over the ways in which we see the world.

True to his schooling in Britain, John Walker is a master at filling in, working terribly hard at the problematic conflict between abstraction and figuration as it was first broached by the Cubists. It is a measure of conservatism, if not outright provincialism, of so many artists that this issue is still the major issue confronted regularly. And yet to dismiss Walker in this way is to ignore the very real impact of his most recent paintings. This is certainly not the kind of art one would turn to for intellectual stimulation, its concerns being too narrowly focused on painting problems which are no longer fresh. But on a sensual level these paintings do work and can provide a great deal of localized pleasure.

Since abandoning collage Walker seems to have decided to work harder on the actual processes of painting, and the concentration has proved beneficial. Working with the same simple configuration over and over, painting mostly wet into wet, he manages to create expressive surfaces which nevertheless imply considerable depth. The canvases tend to be dark, even murky, but the little patches of bright color shining through the thick encrustations of pigment on the surface give them a glow and sparkle. There is plenty to look at in these paintings, and they do reward close scrutiny. In fact, one can appreciate the work in detail with greater pleasure than as a whole, perhaps because ones does not expect as much from a detail or fragment.

The attraction of this sort of conservative work is obvious; it provides something to savor without risk. It is comfortable, even warming. While looking at it one can gently mull over well-worn ideas, finding confirmation of one’s knowledge and intelligence, in the ability to grasp the picture.

Thomas Lawson