London

John Walker

Nigel Greenwood Gallery

Working and reworking Velasquez’ Las Meñinas, the painting Michel Foucault described as “the representation . . . of Classical representation and the definition of the space it opens up to us,” John Walker has moved gradually from complex, murky interiors to a final, sun-filled dissolution of the motif he calls the “alba.” Two series of drawings were created, presenting familiar Walker motifs and “characters”: a bulbous human figure, simultaneously bosomy, testicular, and feathered; a shape halfway between a baseball mitt and a bunch of bananas; most versatile of all, the alba—solid object, window or lighted doorway, Velasquez’ Infanta Margarita, or perhaps Goya’s Duchess of Alba, all in one. A set of complex charcoal drawings with underdrawing shows the human figure lolling and docile, confronting its own pictured or reflected image in a closed room. Gradually, as the series proceeds, the environment seems to assume the characteristics of a trellised garden, while the figure, invariably on the right, becomes a geisha, all curves, or some plumed male, striding proudly from left to right. In this last transitional drawing the alba form has become grotesquely overgrown; perspective recedes, then stops dead, like a stage set. In the smaller, vertical series only this polygonal form features against various backgrounds, its solidity brought more and more into question as it dissolves into an airy confection until even this is robbed of separate identity. Its metamorphosis into a waterfall or a gnarled tree trunk is not important; Walker’s tour de force has been to excuse his swift strokes from their descriptive tasks, then reassemble them around a central open space so that what had previously been incidental mark-making has taken precedence. Densely worked, these small drawings are tranquil and lyrical. Not only the mood but the entire genre has changed.

An empty formalist development? I think not. There is a reason why Foucault placed his Velasquez analysis at the very beginning of The Order of Things: the realist convention it ponders ousted other, more mysterious systems of thought which had previously held sway. His account of the “four similitudes” of Renaissance thought may be required reading in future—and one Englishman will deserve at least a footnote. At a time when various approaches were becoming bankrupt, it will say, he thought his way out—not forward but sideways, in an attempt to recover lost methods of comparison.

Stuart Morgan