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Review: Thornton Walker Paintings & works on paper exhibition

 Paintings & works on paper. Thornton Walker. Beaver Galleries, 81 Denison Street, Deakin. Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm, weekends 9am to 5pm. Until November 4.

This exhibition is an impressive demonstration of Thornton Walker's formidable skills as a painter. There are (loosely) three strands present, each of which deals with different thematic concerns. All, however, are characterised by the artist's continuing explorations of the ways that the language of painting offers him such a rich lode for the reinvention of pictorial expression. 

The genre of still life has proved an especially important one in Walker's total oeuvre. The six in the exhibition exquisitely exemplify not only the artist's consummate technical skill but also his understanding of the philosophical import that is (often) a subtle accompaniment to works in this genre. Untitled still life #1401 is an excellent instance of this.  Essentially, this work is composed of two lidded Chinese ginger jars sitting on a piece of white fabric. The jars are placed on a slight diagonal beginning at the top left-hand corner and moving to the mid right-hand edge. Neither jar is complete. Each is tantalisingly cut off so that the totality of its form lies outside the pictorial composition. The decoration consisting of birds and floral elements is accompanied by calligraphic text on the jar to the left. 

Walker does not adhere to the formulaic view of the objects in a still life. Our normal expectations of having the objects displayed as though on a horizontal base are overthrown. The artist adopts a modernist approach to the picture plane and the still life subject matter (here, the jars and the fabric and whatever they are sitting on) is placed almost teetering within the picture's spatial configuration, spilling forward into the viewers' space. They behave as coloured forms not as objects. Conversely, their object-ness is not in question.  This state of simultaneity imbues a marvellously controlled aesthetic tension and this is present in all Walker's still life paintings. 

Pictorially, the relationship between the jars is integral to the maintaining of the state of quiet meditation, of the poetry of silence, that characterises this particular work and remains a feature of all of the artist's best paintings. The connection between the two is visualised by the shadow that falls from the right-hand jar across the field of the fabric to sit barely there but nevertheless present on the edge of the other jar. The shadow is soft, its edges shaped by the folds and wrinkles of the fabric. This inclusive action invokes the significance that each pictorial and formal element plays in the totality of the work.

A group of works, whose ultimate physical source lies in photographs taken by the artist's father in the 1930s in Canada, is both mysterious and powerful. These works are characterised by a bravura approach to composition and surface and are revelatory of Walker's adventurous approach and embracing of the importance of the processes and activity of painting for the successful synthesis of technique, concept and aesthetics. Loping figure and Rider, turning will serve to exemplify this group. In each, the artist inculcates an essentially unstated and inferred narrative that creates a sort of psychological frisson that is given visual expression in the incompleteness of the figure in Loping figure and in the confrontational placement of the protagonist in Rider, turning.

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Loping figure is an extraordinary picture. The artist's clever use of interrogating the balance between spatial, tonal and formal relationships is especially effective. The retreating figure initially dominates in its stolid tonal mass and its placement in the centre of the picture plane. This is played off against the large body of white snow that populates the front of the picture plane. The snow-covered ground tapers off into the left-hand edge of the picture where it becomes a path whose whiteness is further emphasised by the dark silhouettes of the vertical trees that stand on either side. The white of the snow is equalised by the white of the background sky and this tonal familial resemblance unites foreground with background. This is not just formal unity. The unstated narrative comes into play. The path is obviously where the loping figure is headed. It is the only opening in a landscape affording no entry, dominated by a  frieze of trees and foliage that sits in front of the figure, accommodating (most of) the mid and background of the painting.

Formally, the artist adopts a number of technical approaches to his treatment of the pictorial surface to achieve a form of painterly equivalent to the implied episodes of the mystery narrative. The snow is very painterly with clear and active brushstrokes overlaid in lateral gestures that contrast with the grainy dappled surfaces of the foliage and trees. The dense mass of the figure, tonally broken by a boot and sole of a boot, is clearly demarcated from the natural surroundings. 

The all-over effectiveness of the surface treatment of the preceding is seen in Rider, turning. This work though is concerned with the depiction of movement held in stasis and in this is marvellously effective. The energetic horse and rider are caught in a dramatic spiral movement underscored by the lines of the reins, the backward thrust of the rider's left arm and the positioning of the group at the front of the picture plane in the apex of a flat triangle formed by the low landscape of the hills to the left and the right of the picture plane. The quirky insertion of a horizontal bar of light cutting into horse and rider from the left is a conversely strong reinforcement of the spiral conjunction of equine and human. Once again, formal and tonal contrasts coalesce to form a dynamic whole deftly achieved by the artist's accomplished aesthetic control.

In both of the above works there is a filmic feeling that is given further expression in others in the exhibition. Walker has an interest in Japanese cinema film and this is evinced in the exhibition in Okayama-Uno and Interior, Japan. The latter is a wonderful study in tonal modulation and the poetry of the intimate. Again, the subtle insertion of an undisclosed narrative adds an air of mystery and intrigue that is given formal equivalent in the pictorial structure and exquisite surface control.

Walker's art as seen in this exhibition is an art of reserved quietness, of contemplation and meditation. It is an art of mystery and enigma full of visual and thematic tensions. Though based in precise observation, its concerns are less with the depiction of an idealised reality than with the celebration of the artist's unique visual language(s) and the power of suggestion achieved through a full understanding of the painter's art. A special exhibition well worth a visit.