John R Walker

Bushwalking, geology, environmental history, and fugue have fed painter John R Walker’s love of country, resulting in his layered evocations of walking, and looking.

This year marks twenty years since artist John R Walker, moved to Braidwood in rural New South Wales. It’s also the thirty-fifth anniversary of Utopia Art Sydney, the gallery that has represented Walker since it opened in 1988. Born and raised in Sydney, Walker has always preferred being in the bush to city dwelling. For many years, he was a part-time bushwalking guide. A favourite place was the Budawangs, in the South Coast, near where he now lives. A sense of connectedness led to a passionate interest in geology, deep time, and the emerging discipline of environmental history.

The term “landscape” proves problematic for Walker. Acknowledged as one of Australia’s leading painters, he says “I prefer to use ‘country’: ‘landscape’ is too passive and objectifying a frame for the way I approach what I do. I don’t paint landscape at all. ‘Country’ or ‘place’ is a living thing, a narrative. It is more like history. I think it was historian W. K. Hancock who said ‘history is best done with your boots on.’ When I was younger, I loved walking into places like the Budawangs, where I could wander around, set up camp near a stream and light a campfire. Over time I became aware that many of the places I visited, where I painted, were once populated but now were abandoned and full of ghosts and traces.

“In December 1993 I was guiding a bush-walking group around Barrington Tops. On the first day it snowed, but by the end of the trip there was an increasing amount of fire in the valleys below. On my return to Sydney, I realised that I didn’t know enough about fire, so I went to North Sydney library and borrowed a copy of the CSIRO report into the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires and Stephen Pyne’s Burning Bush, 1991. Not long after this a friend gave me a copy of Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters, 1994. In hindsight, this is where and when my interest in environmental history and fire ecology began. For me, the concept of landscape as a human story, a ‘human artefact’ was hiding in plain sight.”

A number of Walker’s major works are in series, a pattern that began during his first residency at Bundanon.

“While at art school I was given a copy of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: a revelatory introduction to fugue structures, mapping, metaphor and pattern-making. In 2001, at my first residency at Bundanon, I was searching for a way to represent the experience of walking and looking over time. I had a CD of Shostakovich’s twenty-four preludes and fugues playing in the studio. The nine-panel painting, Shoalhaven Ridge, and Six Days in Bundanon and I give thanks to Boyd arose out of this melding of musical fugues and walking country. The fugue structure is the backbone to the major 2018 Adelaide Biennial, seven-panel work, Oratunga Burra Suite Fugue. It is also how I see the forthcoming exhibition, Journeys and Return, at Orange Regional Gallery. Although the exhibition is made up of discrete paintings, these images are also components of a larger picture or story.”

In the studio, piled high on the print drawers and teetering against the wall are dozens of drawing books, mostly Chinese fold-out books, evidence that drawing is a foundational practice for Walker. “I have always drawn, however, I was introduced to the Chinese concertina books by my friend, artist and gallerist Christopher Hodges, back in 2002. At the time I was an artist-in-residence at Hill End. Ever practical, these books fold down to A4 or smaller into a daypack. For me, the unfolding (they fold out to about four or five metres) is a great way to capture the sense of walking and looking. The magic of turning an experience—whether a tree, a walk or whatever—into a pattern arrangement of marks and colour never ceases to get me going. Above all, I love putting sheets of paper on the ground, loading up a brush with colour and just drawing, while sipping tea from the billy.”

Much of Walker’s work since moving to Braidwood has revealed an exploration of this region. However, since 2016 the Flinders Ranges in South Australia has opened a new path.

“In 2016, I was invited to participate in the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Curator Erica Green suggested that Oratunga homestead in the northern Flinders Ranges might be worth visiting. I felt reluctant to even attempt it because of the challenge it presented. This is a very different sort of country. The geology and fire regimes are so different to the places that I know well. However, I also felt a need to create new difficulties for myself.

“As part of my preparation, I asked historian Tom Griffiths for a reading list and consulted writer, Nicholas Rothwell. I had also rediscovered Hans Heysen’s lean, spare drawings and paintings of the drought-scoured land of the Oratunga in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.

“At every visit, I have climbed the rocky ridge behind the Oratunga homestead. At the centre of this vast space is the distinctive, rock massif, Patawarta Hill. My lasting impression of the country around Oratunga is a sense of soaring harmonics that feel incredibly close to the ancient Armenian hymn Bats mez Ter. The spiritual hum of the place had begun to haunt me; it will not let me go.

Eagle Spirit, Vathiwarta, which was hung in the 2022 Wynne Prize, originally started as a painting of a large sprawling gum, the kind you find near watercourses in the Flinders Ranges. I turned it upside down and realised it had the bones of Patawarta Hill. I called my Adnyamathanha friend and artist, Kristian Coulthard, and asked him to name it.

“The spirit, the ‘eternal’ is so present in the northern Flinders Ranges and is now present to me in the country where I live. It’s like water flowing away from high country, reaching all places, and bringing new life.”

As the artist began to roll up paintings to take to Sydney for stretching, we discussed his forthcoming exhibitions and the inspiration behind his recent works.

“Since late 2018, I’ve been travelling to a farm near Borenore, west of Orange. Deep time is again very visible. As I walk across this Wiradjuri country towards a rock shelter and cave network, I’m standing on fossilised coral reefs, looking across to an extinct volcano, Mount Canobolas or Gaanha-bula. Beneath run hidden rivers.

“My recent work has drawn on a growing sense of connectedness to the various places I have gotten to know. For all the differences between the limestone country of Borenore, the granite country of Braidwood and the Ediacaran rock country of the Flinders Ranges, there are threads that unite them.

Earthprints, at Utopia Art Sydney, brings together paintings and works on paper made over the past two years. Journeys and Return, at Orange Regional Gallery, includes a body of mostly large works that I have always thought of as being components of a bigger creation.”

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65

Journeys and Return
25 November 2023 – 21 January 2024
Orange Regional Gallery, NSW

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