New York

John Walker

Knoedler & Company

John Walker’s new paintings seem predicated on esthetic ambition. One can imagine Walker having asked himself, “Can I take a passing visual fancy as slight as something seen behind closed, sleepy eyelids and develop it until it seems to open onto the reach and density of obsession?”

The panoramic vastness of these paintings makes the conceit plausible, as do Walker’s unprepossessing hues—the pinks and browns of faded postcards from out West—and the two principal figures he takes up each time: 1) a broad smear of pinkish/brownish paint rising like a jet of thick muddy water and falling like the “slide” of one title; and 2) big white things bearing big thick dots, mostly red. Either as forms or schematic elements of landscape or still life, or allusions to things in the world, neither figure provides much to express or ponder.

Take the white things, as Henny Youngman might have said. As surfaces, they resemble die faces; as groups, strings of identical beads; as objects, thick-necked light bulbs or featureless Styrofoam heads for displaying hats: in all, thin in meaning and allusion, and resistant to variation. Conceived of as actors they were given little to do. The path rises and falls, the white forms tumble around it and against the darker ground of large, squarish, slablike tarry brushstrokes. . . .

Or is it “in,” or “through,” or “across” or “into” these strokes? As in “traversing” the cosmos or the imagined spaces of the mind where direction is a word? The white forms go every which way; the picture’s tops and bottoms seem arbitrary.

Sometimes the muddy smear takes on serpentine and/or phallic qualities. Can these be creation allegories? Seeds of existence streaking out into the womb or cosmos a split-second after ejaculation or the big bang?

The titles are too literal and homey: Mud Dance: Keepsake: Mud + Air; Earth Dance; Slide and Forms (all works 1992)—and too down-to-earth to imply mock-heroic parodies of what we’re told were earlier abstract painters’ hankerings after the mythological and the sublime, even though Walker’s muddy phallic form gets a little wobbly here and there, like those cloth-covered springs that leap out at you from trick peanut cans; and this might be comic relief. . . .

In short, vague art.

However, from a smaller study and two small sketches of these same figures, figure groups and compositions, one can surmise that Walker’s original relationship to his motifs was emotionally, physically, and intellectually precise; that the pictures he imaged for them each obsessed him in specific ways. In the small works, the pathlike form surges its way through in athletic gestures of arm and brush; each white form is a unique field in which Walker paints his way to what seems a unique and inevitable composition; everywhere the surfaces are alive; nowhere does drama give way to bombast.

There exist too many explanations for the losses that occur between sketches/ studies and grandes machines to sift through here. Besides, the small paintings look too well thought-out, too long lived with and contemplated to be just studies. I prefer to ponder the potential in the combination: Walker’s modest titles, the modest size of these few successful paintings, his obvious skill and passion, and the fact that in art it is not imitation but illusion that counts.

Ben Lifson