Chicago

John Walker

John Walker’s recent dilemma is a particularly poignant one. He is a remarkably skilled artist who works in the grand painterly tradition, yet he seems to suspect that that tradition is exhausted—no more than a shadow of its former glory. His work reflects his search for meaning with paint, and his assertion of self through the encounter with the canvas, coupled with the sustained significance of the struggle between form and content, suggests that his approach still affords a certain potential. With each bout with the rectangle, Walker battles himself, and the crux of these paintings rests in their battered pride, in the artist’s ability—quite like that of Don Quixote—to imbue with stature what might otherwise be taken as aimless, tragicomic meandering.

Carelessly painted dark grids often echo the shape of Walker’s largish canvases. These brooding and frequently reworked areas suggest bits of piled-up fences or gates that reinforce the picture plane while also clearly indicating that the space they describe is not precisely rational. Washy and indeterminate areas of creamy pastel tones surge around and over these demarcations, obscuring and then revealing them. Arranged across his canvases in quasi-still-life compositions, accretions of disembodied arms and gloves, odd seashells, strange, fruitlike elements, and Walker’s curious signature bent, chimneylike form, constitute more a mutable formal repertoire than a residue of worldly observation.

The friezelike Clay, Hand + Forms I, 1990–91, a large, wan painting, rendered, with the exception of two creamy pink conch shells, in light tones of gray, tan, and brown, consists of two canvases that provide the painting with a vertical fulcrum where they abut, around which his iconographic forms align themselves. These pictorial elements have little metaphorical meaning or conviction save the total conviction of their painterly invocation. Indeed, it is only their continuous and repetitive employ—almost unbidden, they seem to surface in composition after composition—that lends them resonance. Walker’s forms are piled up in a manner reminiscent of Philip Guston’s, but where Guston’s work has verve and gusto, Walker’s is characterized by a kind of diffidence and doubt, and, of course, a willingness to stroll indolently through passages of remarkably beautiful paint handling. The result is a sense of consummate indecision and a charged inarticulateness that can seem rather heartrending. Everything that is needed to make great painting is present in Walker’s work, save a compelling reason to paint. These are finally expert parings within an endgame of unfocused aspirations that, in their very lack of vitality, are surprisingly moving.

James Yood