Your work seems to have become more complex and intricate in the last six months, featuring more reptiles and insects. Is there a reason for that?
There are a lot of snakes, it’s true, and I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I have seen them in Sottobosco paintings, but I think it’s possible that subconsciously they hark back to the stories I saw in books at the religious schools I went to as a child; there were always images of snakes winding down trees.
It’s just such an archetypal thing that we all relate to in a way.
The trees in your pictures often seem to have been cut down?
Composition-wise I like the way cut in half tree’s look, I find tree stumps a satisfying shape to paint because it’s fun to japan things that have a very three-dimensional feel to them and it was in a narrative sense very much related to the themes in my work throughout my practice. There’s also something odd about finding a tree stump in the forest and seeing how nature interacts with something that has been unnaturally altered by humans, like how sometimes they use the surface as a little table or burrow into the middle and make hollow tree stump homes.
How come the new works feature so much of what is going on beneath the ground; is it some commentary on the soil which sustains us all?
I have been reading about underground fungi and how it connects everything; mushroom spores, dandelion clocks, pollination – are all part of systems I never realised were there before.
I remember looking at biology textbooks when I was young and thinking how little we know about what happens under the ground. There is something spooky to me – almost a horror element. The centipedes in our garden are so odd – so alien-looking. They move so strangely and don’t look natural.
There seem to be a number of surprising conjunctions in the new works; a snake feeding a spring of lavender to some baby birds for instance or putting its nose into a bluebell?
I like putting things in places where they shouldn’t be. In the painting of the mushroom ring for instance, I didn’t want the mushrooms to make sense so I made each one of a different variety. I wanted it to be a mutated version of a mushroom ring.
I have been reading Japanese manga series like Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind in which, after the destruction of the world, nature destroys man. I have also been reading the Annihilation series by Jeff VanderMeer in which nature mutates and I can’t help thinking, of how human destructive activity impacts different species of animals, plants and the environment in general, events like global warming are a clear example and it makes you wonder if even things like the pandemic could be related to our reckless treatment of nature.
What are the glowing balls hanging off the cobwebs in so many of your scenes?
Raindrops: on webs they look like pearl necklaces.
Having perfected the use of black lacquer and gold – there seem to be greater use of colour in these latest pictures?
I have in the past struggled with using colours, though I love colourful compositions and I have tried at times to create more colourful works in different mediums, I just found that for me, It didn’t click. One colour pop is okay; like a red coral snake or sea anemone to emphasise the silver and gold. Tulips are one of my favourite flowers but not for their colour; I like their shape and their leaves which are always so cartoonish and curly.
Why the rock pools?
I have always been obsessed by rockpools. I grew up near Jesmond dene in Newcastle and as a child I used to visit Tynemouth beach and St Mary’s lighthouse, I would spend so much time staring into rockpools near the lighthouse, they look like little portholes to another world which I guess they kind of are. The rockpool I have painted is an extracted rockpool, the way you would see them illustrated in science text books at school with all of the different layers.
You have made your biggest work for this exhibition; made of nine panels it measures more than two metres high and has at its centre a painting of a heron in a pond; a still point is an almost wild scene. Can you explain what you were thinking as you made it?
I wanted to express the co-dependency of elements in the natural world and all of these latest works – but particularly this one – are a bit more chaotic and busier than they were with things spreading everywhere.
A friend who works with Sculpture and Installation said to me recently “The problem with Painting is that it has too much history”. My instantaneous reply was “That’s one of the very things that I most like about it.” I’m fairly confident John Walker’s answer would have been similar.
My first encounter with him as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late 1970s was not necessarily an easy one. His work was extraordinarily prominent and highly thought of at that time and there was barely a student who was not making pastiches of his work. I was one of the few who was not but when he saw what I was trying to do he was characteristically perceptive, helpful and sympathetic. Later he was instrumental in helping me get a Harkness Fellowship to Yale, and we still meet up from time to time.
It has always struck me as profoundly unjust that over the decades since he moved away from the UK, sometime around the mid-1980s, his work once so prominent should have vanished from sight along with him, and that a large number of younger artists were completely unaware of his practice. His work now seems as relevant as ever and about ten years ago, with the backing of Turps Banana Painting Magazine, I flew off to Boston to interview him and to try and set that situation right.
John’s reputation in the USA, where he has been living for some time now, is securely established and unquestioned. His involvement with the dilemmas of illusion and surface have always been paramount. Film critics often reference the emotional agency of depicted space in movies, seldom referenced in that way by commentators on the plastic arts. Space, or the illusion of it, has always been prominent in John’s practice and to my mind is much more relevant than the introduction of ‘namable’ subject matter or even text. The Door is perhaps a more fitting metaphor for John’s paintings than The Window, and the subject matter or text could be seen only as a possible key, nothing more, nothing less. Complexity or contradiction has never really been problematic for the poetic imagination. As the art world seems to be devolving into part of the entertainment industry, these works vastly repay any effort demanded to understand them, their context and background. This new and exciting exhibition of John’s work is long overdue.
Here follows an updated version of my interview with John, which despite some years having passed still offers many insights.
CS: One clear trait of you practice is a determination to apply the paint in varied and unexpected ways.
JW: I’ve always been interested in what you may call talking with the brush - that’s something inherent in great painting. The way the artist kind of talks himself through a space or a distinctive form. It was one of the things that worried me about a lot of my friends’ paintings, Minimalists if you like, this throwing-out of the language of the brush. It was there in the paintings I admired, that distinctive touch which you see in a Chardin for example and which makes you gasp when you see the beauty of it.
CS: Could it be said that your attention was moving away from just the act of painting, towards referencing things outside of that?
JW: Well, that’s true to an extent. I’d come to feel with the ‘collage paintings’ that they were solid enough to feel – if you hit one for example, you’d break your hand. But I suppose what I’d reverted to was that it was no longer just about force because I’d always believed the same of say a Vermeer painting that if it fell on you it could kill you because it’s so finitely structured. There’s a dialogue going on all the time and even though I thought the collage paintings were going well what was missing in the paintings was ‘going back to air’ – how do you paint air? I was beginning to feel I’m not doing the things I care about. I was looking at Rembrandt’s portraits for example – how do you paint the space around a form?
CS: Would it be fair to say that in the past you were interested in the ‘whole painting’ as an image, whereas now you are becoming more interested in an image ‘within’ the work?
JW: To an extent it was: “how can I find a form which I can place with air around it?”
CS: I seem to remember reading years ago that you’d quoted Picasso saying that he wanted his paintings to stop just this side of abstraction and that you wanted your paintings to stop just this side of figuration.
JW: One of the most inspiring things I ever read was by Malevich, who, when asked what his ambition was, said to imbue a square with feeling. Somehow that square had to act figuratively – not abstractly, even though it was an abstract form. It’s the same with Rothko – you’re not just seeing a rectangle, those forms somehow act figuratively on you. Someone who doesn’t do it so well is Barnett Newman. If he hadn’t called those paintings Stations Of The Cross they would just be black and white paintings.
CS: Some of the dialogues, which have unfolded in your work over the years have an affinity with Guston – the reintroduction of ‘nameable’ imagery for example. He seemed to have had a road to Damascus conversion, whereas your developments seem to have evolved more slowly.
JW: It’s very much a narrative thing – there’s a lot of narration in Guston. Even though I met him several times it’s quite hard to talk about him. The language or the ‘touch’ of paint is always the most important, and some times the subject matter is just a kind of filler.
CS: Would you agree that the forms in your work are usually defined by the edges of shapes rather than by the brush marks modeling them? The marks seem more to animate the shapes rather than model them?
JW: I spend a lot of time trying to work out where things meet – where form meets space. I spend a lot of time trying to activate that area. That’s where drawing is. I love looking at Albers – the precision of where the colours meet creates drawing.
CS: Let’s talk about the way you have represented space in your paintings. Very often the forms or planes lie parallel to the picture surface.
JW: Everyone seems to have his or her own definition of what the picture plane is. I suppose I wanted to place the forms in front of the picture plane. I am thinking of one particular Cezanne self-portrait, where he established the picture plane very early on in an area just behind the ear, then, later on, everything else has a discussion with that part. There is a kind of building in and out of the picture plane. The painting in the Phillips Collection in Washington seems to exist in the space between you and the surface. The painting is about four feet away but Cezanne is only about two and a half feet away.
CS: I suppose what I mean is, in say the Alba paintings, the forms and the areas around them are upright as opposed to your paintings, which have a recessive sloping surface. From my own experience I know it is easier to get the marks to lie down and fuse with the forms when they are parallel.
JW: Well, that’s the problem with landscape painting – you find that things move away from you pretty quickly. The thing is you are always making a painting. There’s a physical difference between what is a ‘view’ and a ‘painting’. Most of those paintings were actually started outside in the landscape, then when I had something there I brought them in and had a dialogue with the work, then took them out again and to see if they ‘fitted’, to see if they were then actually part of the landscape. They don’t have to look like it.
CS: Are they based on a specific area?
JW: Very much so. I’ve been going up to this area, where I have a studio in Maine, over many years, and it really happened about the time I had a breakdown and I didn’t really know where I was going. I found this cove where all the shit came in out of the ocean. When the tide went there was all this mud and it fitted into a group of paintings where mud was the central theme – homage pictures to my father who fought in the First World War. It took a long time but I suppose what I wanted was for people to be able to say I knew more about this spot than anyone else in the world. Cezanne knew more about Mont Sainte-Victoire than anyone else, and I‘ve got my little piece of mud! It changes all the time, every time the tide rolls in or out.
CS: It coincided with a difficult period in your life?
JW: Yes, there was a period of about eighteen months when I just could not work. The landscape refreshed me and helped me to come back.
CS: Tell me about the introduction of text into the paintings.
JW: It came at first from a drawing my daughter had made of a birthday card which included the text For You, and then I made a big painting, which I still think well of, with those words on it. Then it grew a little bit and there’s a whole series of paintings somewhere of birthday cards.
CS: That relates to you not wanting to exclude anything from paintings.
JW: Yes, I just don’t want those rules.
CS: I’ve found a quote from way back that says, more or less, you don’t like maximum impact paintings, but prefer ones that reveal themselves more slowly. What was the context for that?
JW: That’s a really early statement, from when I was a very young man. There was a time when, for a while, I found my art being exhibited alongside Warhol and Lichtenstein – all that wham-bam stuff. I felt my work was really not about the same thing at all, which in some sense forced me into a kind of retreat.
CS: What about Drawing and printmaking – you’ve done a lot of both. How do they fit in with the painting?
JW: Usually when I draw its to check the painting out. I don’t want to just rely on my eye and an immediate response - I want to try to visualise more, to internalise. To see how accurate the painting is. Did I really achieve the placing of forms I intended? I see the drawing as a confirmation, mostly after the painting. I found myself going out with watercolours into the landscape. I don’t need a camera. I want to feel I can paint anything. To me that’s one of the definitions of what a good artist is. Everything is available.
Colin Smith in conversation with John Walker, revisited and edited March 2019
Seal Point, Maine
Sometime in the 1600’s, somewhere in the Netherlands, silver platters are teetering on a darkly lit oak table. Bunches of peaches and plumbs spill over the silverware onto the satin cloths. A dead pheasant gazes forlornly into the middle distance and a lobster looks slightly bored as it’s antennae prods a peeled orange. A wicker basket overloads with grapes and a dead butterfly is glued to a fig.
Around four hundred years later in a dingy pub that smells strongly of beer and sticky carpets, football plays on a large screen as someone orders a ‘surf and turf’ that will inevitably taste of de-frosted plastic.
Better than the Dutch masters, more gluttonous than the upper classes of the 1600’s and as ironic as the pub classic, the namesake of his new work, Elliot Walker draws up a seat at the proverbial feast and assuredly becomes the loudest voice in the room.
In a medium commonly associated with daintiness and refined decorative fragility Walker clears this table with confidence. It suits him that his latest narrative in glass is one of excess, sensory gluttony, and, in terms of technique, a challenge that throws down the gauntlet to the glass blowing world.
Back at our feast, frozen in time in the sixteenth century, one could reach through the ornate gold picture frame and touch the soft flesh of the peaches and feel the cool goblets, the wine looks so intoxicating it fills the twentieth century nostril. Walker’s Surf ’n’ Turf offering invites a warier feaster to the table. More artifice than natural this feast will never rot, there are no flies on this table. There is nothing soft about this abandoned dinner party.
Away from the glinting light refracting off these extraordinary objects there is an underside of darkness. Walker points out that ‘the vitrification of materials is a common occurrence at sites of great calamity’. There is a sense of abandonment at this particular dinner party. A vitrification, or fossilisation, moments before a disaster of grand scale, the guests running for cover as molten pumice and ash rain down, freezing a scene of apparent serenity forever. In a dark parody of the Dutch still life this display nods to the perpetual scene of bountiful life and flips it on its head.
When observing Antony Williams’ new still lifes one hears the echoes of Italian churches and smells the faint scent of incense in the air. Akin to a fresco by Piero della Francesca suspended in eternal stillness these paintings are quietly contemplative. Like Piero della Francesca they are an infinite scene from a play behind a curtain that never goes down, however, they are the outcome of a more contemporary perspective.
Subconsciously at first, time is stretched a little by Antony Williams’ paintings. There is a stillness of times passing observed, it is not just the dawn like moment of the early renaissance painting that seems to be present. It is the method itself, the mark making one on top of the other, repeatedly, that seem to encapsulate time spent in observing. The effect on our transient viewing, whether in passing or in study is to become increasingly aware that as much as these are works of observation they are also visual odes to time.
Their unusual quality relies upon the viewers suspension of disbelief in a medium of high reality. These series of small still lifes focus on the dichotomy between organic matter and the geometry of architecture. Australian seed heads are tucked behind the doors of a Victorian dolls house and appear out of the roof, oddly disproportionate within its surroundings.
There are several points of differences here to grapple with from the geometric versus the organic to high reality versus the unexpected surreal. These studies bring architecture down to a scale where it becomes fragile, suddenly you are looking at a world that that could be destroyed by a wrong foot.
These are not simply a collection of objects but are composed in a way that conveys intensity in scale despite their size. Antony’s technique of mark-making records such a potency of information that they explode out of their dimensions.
Antony begins his day with the same ritualistic routine, that of mixing the raw pigments to create his palette. Dictated by the day’s work ahead of him Antony creates and controls the palette he needs.
Known for depicting some of the world’s biggest names and art collectors, Antony is associated with unflinching depictions of people whose reputations and celebrity proceed them. In these small paintings Antony is free to become absorbed by his personal pre-occupations and the surfaces and juxtapositions that captures his imagination. They have a presence beyond their size and will be displayed with equal reverence to Antony’s full-scale portraits.
Following an outstanding opening of Malene’s work in Cork St, Malene Hartmann Rasmusen’s exhibition ‘Fantasma’ has relocated itself to Istanbul to be part of ‘Beyond the vessel: Myth and Metamorphosis in Contemporary Ceramics’.
It is too often the case that provincial artists (responding to their own culture or the mythologies of their own community) have to enter main, often western, centers of the world in order to make their name. The koc foundation in Istanbul is upending this. This exhibition looks decidedly outward and pays particular attention of the mythologies of different communities while highlighting the unifying quality of the ancient medium of clay itself.
Malene has drawn inspiration from the cultural outpourings of Scandinavia and her own past. Her work itself is very much responding to a journey that she is on and we are delighted to play a part in the physical journey of these works from Denmark to London and to Istanbul.
Shortly prior to exhibiting in Messums London Malene completed a ceramics residency at the V&A which has informed the works on show.