Here I Give Thanks. John R. Walker. ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Kingsley Street, Acton. Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5pm until August 9.
About a dozen years ago, John R. Walker, the quintessentially Sydney artist, left his Parramatta Road studio and moved to the country town of Braidwood, where he constructed a spacious studio and his work became increasingly preoccupied with the landscape.
A catalyst for this move was a residency which he undertook in 2001 at Bundanon, Arthur Boyd's former home and his gift to the nation. For Walker the experience demonstrated the need to live in the landscape which you paint as well as the practical need for a huge studio, where an artist can pursue the development of several large-scale canvases simultaneously. The Sydney art market loved this reorientation in his art.
Together with commercial success, Walker's paintings have been the subject of a series of extensive exhibitions in public galleries. The exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery is the fourth I have encountered in recent years - the others were at S. H. Ervin in Sydney (2008), Maitland Regional Art Gallery (2011) and Orange Regional Gallery (2014). They have all been characterised by big paintings and lots of them, and this one is no different.
The title for this show, Here I Give Thanks, is self-referential and relates to one of Walker's own paintings, which is included in this exhibition, titled Six Days at Bundanon and I Give Thanks to Boyd (2001). The title in itself refers to a Colin McCahon work, Six days in Nelson and Canterbury, as well as another McCahon painting in which he offers thanks to Mondrian, while in this instance Walker pays homage to Arthur Boyd.
Like many artists who have undertaken residencies at Bundanon and who have attempted to paint the local landscape, Walker has found it difficult to escape, not so much the Boydian iconography, as Boyd's sensibility and system of mark making. A number of Walker's large paintings, including Revisiting the Boat on the Bank (2002), The Boat on the Bank (2001) and CH Crossing Shoalhaven (2001), consciously or otherwise pay homage to the landscape vision of Arthur Boyd. The late Shoalhaven landscapes in the oeuvre of Arthur Boyd were not so much a rediscovery of the Australian landscape after his years in Britain or the celebration of some generic Australian Felix, but profoundly humanist paintings that at their core protested at the senseless destruction of our fragile environment, which Boyd interpreted in physical, spiritual and cultural terms. It is a holistic vision, where the outer physical forms convey this rich inner content.
Walker's paintings are beautifully crafted, visually literate and have exceptionally attractive surfaces, but for me lack the drama, pathos and spiritual resonance of Arthur Boyd's vision. This is understandable, as he is a very different sort of artist and while he may be paying homage to Boyd, he is not creating a Boydian pastiche. Nevertheless, the Boydian reference sets a very high benchmark for an artist to follow.
For me the strength of this exhibition lies less in the big paintings, which stretched anywhere from between two to six metres, but rather in the more intimate gouaches and especially in the concertina artist's books. These unfold in a diaristic manner, like a walk through a landscape, where it is not a question of arriving somewhere, but an expression of the experience of being there. The finest of these are found outside the main exhibition and share the space with Sidney Nolan's majestic Riverbend.
Aged in his late 50s, Walker is a well-established artist who is now entering his golden years fully equipped with the experiences and resources to embark on new challenges. This spate of survey exhibitions show us the journey which he has travelled thus far. It will be interesting to see the direction he adopts for the future.