He opts for invention

IT is stimulatingly evident, seeing an exhibition of John Walker's paintings or prints, that here is an English artist for whom the act and procedure of painting are themselves extremely enriching. ``I don't know,'' he once said, ``I just enjoy painting. . . .'' And he enjoys paint -- oil paint, specifically, and brush and canvas. But this love of means is saved from becoming a self-indulgence, or a trite pleasure in skill and technique, by his restless awareness that direct honesty must continually disrupt any comfortable tendency toward thoughtless habits of style.

He enjoys painting's manipulation and movement, its substance and evanescence, its capacity to suggest thick, deep shadow or shimmering surface light, its confrontation of the formless by the distinctly formed, its double-readings of space and solid, the opened and the closed. And he seems, with irrepressible intention, to find a constantly extending variety of ways to bring together two sides of painting that traditionally have not always successfully mixed.

They might be called the ``Beauty-and-Beast'' dichotomy: on the one hand the pleasurable, decorative possibilities of painting, the isolation and pursuit of visual felicity for its own interest and self-sufficient delight; and on the other hand, the brutal, even primitive, use of art as expression, as an assault on feelings, or a direct response to human emotion.

Walker's most recent work has taken him further than before into this second aspect of painting: Living and working in Australia, he has reacted startlingly to encounters with Oceanean cultural and tribal symbolism, fetish-magic, and ritual. But his slightly earlier work (represented here by a painting of 1980, and a print of 1981 which was shown in an exhibition at the Tate Gallery at the beginning of 1985) was, as yet, exploring themes developed within the boundaries of Western art.

Walker has not hidden in his work his inner ``conversations'' with past art. But he has utterly transformed this art, subjecting it to the exigencies of his own means and intuitions. That these two works can be said to have found their original points of departure in Goya and Vel'azquez (``No. 3 from Prahran'' using a motif that derives from Goya's portrait of the Duchess of Alba, and ``Labyrinth III'' relating to Vel'azquez' ``Las Meninas'') is possibly of more significance in Walker's thought p rocesses than it can be objectively to a viewer. He has not set up some game of cross-reference for us to play. The shapes and forms, and the painterly drama visualized for them by the artist, are now his own language and have little directly to do with those admired Spanish painters of the past.

Nor is it obvious that a painting by Jackson Pollock which Walker saw early in his career has also remained very relevant to his vision. It is significant, though, that Pollock shared with Goya and Vel'azquez a tendency toward a decorative play of paint over surfaces, and with Goya a turning from this ``beautiful'' side of art to show something of the nightmarish aspect of humanity. Walker is now similarly moving his paintings into a vivid blend of the exultant and the somber, of the animate and the in animate.

His shapes and forms are crucially related to his determination to paint with maximum power. They are his effective answer to a problem presented by the notion of ``abstract'' art: that the abstract is always in need of a ``motif'' -- is even weakened by a lack of it. Abstraction may have gained in self-sufficiency and in concentration on undistracted essences by abandoning ``representation'' and ``figuration,'' but it then still needed to find new ways of giving itself sufficient ``body.'' This i s a predicament particularly tested at the present time. But it is not something of which abstract painters have simply been unaware until now. In 1961, Roger Hilton observed that ``for an abstract painter there are two ways out or on: he must either give up painting and take up architecture, or he must reinvent figuration.''

John Walker has resoundingly not chosen to ``give up painting,'' and he is still basically an ``abstract'' painter. But he finds an area of considerable fruitfulness in the tentative forays an abstract painter might permit himself into the ``figurative,'' without resorting to merely storytelling fantasies, to parody, or even studio-contrived academics. Instead of a retreat to unadventurous traditionalism, he opts for ``reinvention'' -- or downright invention.

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