New York

John Walker

Knoedler Gallery

John Walker seems to see the frame not as a window but as a door, and sometimes he opens another door within it; the surprise in his closet is a monstrous savage stick figure, often with an accompanying skull. A wire chair is their frequent mediator. Primitive beings and things become studio props in a neo-Symbolist puzzle. The stick figure is an Oceanic totem come alive, and the skull no doubt one of its ancestors, perhaps the father it ate. Does the artist identify with this alter ego figure seated like a model in the barren studio? The chair is crucial: it seems to be a bridge between the archaic character of the totemic figure and the pastoral estheticism of Modern art at its French best. Indeed, a cultural standoff is postulated in two paintings entitled Two Cultures, 1983 and 1983–84, which, whatever they’re individually about, summarize both the primitivist and the estheticist traditions of Modern art. Walker now lives and works in Australia (primitivist country) after living and working in England (marginal estheticist territory); are these works allegories of art or statements of a personal dilemma for him? Undoubtedly both Three Oceania My Dilemma pieces, from 1983 and 1984, state the problem: how to make art that has primitive force when one has a shopworn sense both of that force and of self?

Walker’s answer is to embed his stale emblems in a complex color field, at times grittily dense, elsewhere a shallow space, like a stream in which the artist gives us the illusion that he has panned for and found the gold of the symbols. The color field makes the symbols glitter, and stops the viewer from wondering whether all that glitters is really gold. This ploy is typical of the new English mythological painters, of whom Christopher LeBrun is a major example. Where LeBrun goes Greek with winged horses, Walker goes primitive with totemic figures and skulls. The heaviness, even murkiness of the color, the labored, saturated quality both artists give it, lends their paintings more urgency than the symbols do; it invests the paintings with anguished life. Only the color’s pressure on them makes them psychological pressure points. Only as long as they seem about to be consumed by their color do they show resistant energy.

A painted verbal refrain in many of these pictures, the recurring words “in truth in very truth,” gives Walker’s intentions away: to generate conviction, a sense of art living for and communicating fundamental life truths. Supposedly, it does this by remembering that it is only art—only a paradise of color and shape. The underlying utopianism in the positing of the truth—a truth always ultimately unknown, not entirely articulable, untranslatable—is an old stimulus for art; it allows for the chaotic stimulation of the color, conceptually justifies its excesses. Walker has an overorganized ego buttressed by traditional symbols of archaic or occult meaning. The symbols are too familiar, even to the artist, and he disorganizes them and himself through color. This is masterful, even great, Symbolist art. The fiercely vital occult that it offers still vibrates with archaic implications, turning form into force and symbol into stimulus. An artist can do little more with what seems ancient history, besides confirming it as a mystery by putting it on the other side of the door of his picture.

Donald Kuspit