Emma Walker

Emma Walker’s paintings have the rare quality of stirring feelings of vague recollection within the subliminal mind. The abstract compositions, made by complex layering of paint and carving into board, are driven by the artist’s personal history and experiences of the sublime. Yet the viewer who stands before Walker’s works can catch these reveries and feel them as their own.

Your works are characterised by layers which obscure and reveal …
I’ve always worked with layers. It’s kind of a search and response thing; each layer informs the next, decisions get made because of what’s happened before. The business of obscuring and revealing really is of interest to me. I like being able to see passages of earlier layers through the painting, right back to the bones of the first marks. I like that play between what is visible and what isn’t. Forms appear, one thing over the other. I frequently stuff things up, but even the stuff-ups seem to happen for a reason; it might be hard at the time, but later on I see that there was a purpose for it, and finding the solution generates the next action.

I’m interested in your carving and shaping board.
I’ve been sanding edges so that they are curved and mottled, and gouging lines or dots into board. The larger works still read like rectangles from a distance, but most of them have curved corners and other indentations. Carving into the works is about penetrating the surface, getting in further. I like the ambiguity of where a line might be carved or where it might be painted, and that the eye doesn’t necessarily recognise that from a distance. I really like making things as well. I think I’ve got an inner sculptor who’s trying to find her way out. Carving into these paintings and making assemblages is shifting the works into new territory. They become sculptural propositions. They start to inhabit the space around them differently, by the shapes and the shadows they cast, and the possibility of seeing around the corner of the painting, what’s behind the edges.

You work from the intimate scale to the grand. What differences do you notice shifting scale?
I can spend the same amount of time on a really tiny painting as I can on a massive one. I love the intimacy of small works; how they invite you in and make you look carefully. I do like to create those intimate moments in the big ones as well. I like them to read strongly from a distance but offer little surprises when you come up close, so there’s a reference to the smaller works in the bigger works and vice versa. Some of the big gestural marks on the big works I’ll do on the small ones as well. But with the big ones I love how you can physically get lost in them. I guess that reminds me of landscape, that feeling of being inside an enormous place. I’d love to be able to catch a sense of the enormity of things, of the sublime. Bigger works seem to inherently hold that potential.

How does landscape inform your works?
I think for me it’s more about an atmosphere or an experience of a place. There are various places that have had a huge impact on me. I grew up part in the country, part in the city. We had this farm and I know that place like the back of my hand, I still dream about it. I’ve been out to Central Australia a few times and that’s also had a huge impact on me. When I’m out there I really feel like I’m truly myself. It’s like a feeling of coming home. Not coming home so much to a place, but coming home to myself, to how I feel best. I feel this huge shift in perspective that strips away all the mundane stuff that can preoccupy me when I’m at home. Just to be in a place where there are no fences. We’re so used to being hemmed in, but out there you can just walk in any direction. It’s quite a powerful thing to experience and it makes you feel incredibly small, which is humbling. As to how it informs my work, it comes out in its own way; the forms in nature, tracks in dirt, cloud formations. It makes its way into the work inevitably, but never literally or intentionally; it just comes by itself.

Are personal stories imbued into your works?
I think the word ‘imbued’ is key, because I’d say yes there are, definitely. But they’re not obvious. My personal stories play out beneath the surface. As I’m working sometimes a memory will push forward and it might inform the next colour I choose, or the action, or the speed of an action. It’s a pretty nebulous thing. There are a couple of current paintings I’m working on that keep triggering this memory from when I was about nine and I was on my father’s boat. My sister and I were there with him. He used to dare us to do things; he’d get this twinkle in his eye. One night he said: ‘I dare you guys to dive off the side of the boat’, and this is at night! There was a reason for it, he wouldn’t tell us why, but the water was full of phosphorescence, and when I dived in these incredible lights went streaming up my arms and body all around me – it was magical. A moment like that can find its way into the work. I’ll start thinking about my dad, his death, his life, how he lived his life, my grief, and all of that stuff will start this ball rolling, and then on it goes. So they’re all in the paintings somehow.

What else drives the works?
Moods play out very strongly. There’s memory and thinking and thought processes, but emotional states are also very much a part of it. I’m finding myself drawn to make paintings that are difficult. I’m carving, using water-based paints, oil-based paints, thick paint, thin paint, glazes. I’m messing with paint in so many ways, and I’m trying to figure out why the hell I’m doing this, because it seems to be a recipe for confusion and disaster a lot of the time, but it is like this attempt to make sense of all these incredibly disparate and difficult aspects of myself, of life.

You have said you don’t seek to depict, but to evoke. What do you seek to evoke?
I’m always looking for something, it’s like a forward motion into the unknown; an atmosphere, maybe a feeling; the ineffable sublime, the struggle of being a human in a body at this time in life. I’d like to leave questions rather than answers. I love the open-endedness of each person having a different response, and I guess that’s why I’m drawn to abstraction, it allows that freedom. And maybe it’s about connection and communication, you know, a bit like a poem: you look at words on a page and they’re familiar, but when a poet arranges them in a certain way they create whole new meanings that the words wouldn’t do on their own. So maybe I’m trying to make visual poems.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018

Emma Walker: The Dark Sublime
31 August to 20 October 2019
Lismore Regional Gallery, NSW


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