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John Walker: Invisible dimensions

John Walker, Catch I, 2022, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

Contributed by Lisa Taliano / You need to be in front of a John Walker painting in order to get it. Its luminous qualities, the movement, scale, and touch of the brush carries us through the multiple layers and levels of reality shared and contained within and between us. The materiality of the paint works on our bodies directly. Seeing becomes feeling and sensing, understanding. 

Walker’s new work, now on view at Alexandre Gallery, is made up of two different sets of paintings: those painted in 2023 that include references to Cezanne’s The Black Marble Clock, and a second set from 2022 that share a structure and set of motifs similar to the gear used by the fisheries on the coast of Maine where Walker lives, including schematic shapes of nets, weights, buoys, and ladders. This set can be further divided into two series: one featuring wave and weight shapes, the other ladder and bead shapes.

John Walker, Solitude, 2021, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

For Harvey, Solitude, Catch I and II are in the first set. On a sensory level, these paintings are about the somatic feeling of being engulfed in blue and the range of emotions that this brings to the surface, from joy to sorrow. They are all similarly structured around a large wave-like shape that surges upwards, and a heavy but porous shield-like shape that pulls downwards.  The tension between these two elements keeps the paintings in motion and contributes to the feeling of being pulled along the emotional spectrum. 

Resurrection III, part of the second series, contains a vertical pole with outstretched horizontal limbs and an oversized string of beads stacked on the right edge. The pole is ornamented with alternating vertical and horizontal stripes creating an unusual ladder-like form that encourages the eye to move not only up and down but sideways. Textured with animated dots, the loosely outlined beads, which also resemble buckets or shields, bleed into their surroundings.  

John Walker, Resurrection III, 2022, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

Similar beads have regularly appeared in Walker’s paintings over the years and are said to come from a set he was given by an Australian Aboriginal woman. Walker has also frequently painted the ladder image, inspired by a 1772 Tiepolo painting, The Descent from the Cross. This combination of motifs recalls the collision of cultures that Walker grappled with in his paintings of the eighties, when, as a young European artist, he lived in Australia and was introduced first-hand to Aboriginal artists and Oceanic culture. The underlying tension and contradictions in the paintings of that time are eloquently resolved in his later ones – perhaps informed by the importance that Walker as well as Aboriginal artists has come to place in ancestors and the land. 

I think it is through this apparent spiritual bond that we can make some sense of the mysterious quality behind the second set of paintings, involving the clock and the shell. Although Walker has been painting landscapes for at least 30 years, he is still considered an abstract painter. But his abstract paintings are unique. Like Australian Aboriginal art, Walker employs a combination of naturalistic or schematic depictions of objects alongside more abstract symbols and elements, which results in paintings that present complex relationships between different levels of reality and types of pictorial syntax.

Although tightly woven figurative representations and abstract elements are common in Aboriginal painting, this juxtaposition in Western painting can be a little startling. It isn’t the first time Walker has introduced figurative elements into abstract paintings. Early in his career, he opened up his picture space to clearly rendered representations of objects. This move extended the language of abstract painting at the time to allow for figuration. The strange collocation of recognizable objects together and next to abstract elements was seen as posing epistemological questions as well as raising traditional issues of pictorial representation. 

John Walker, Walker Cultures (Oceania 7), 1982, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

The way in which clearly representational forms are combined with non-representational elements mixes levels of reality similar to the way early cubist collage did. As Jack Flam has put it, “one formulation of a view of reality is contrasted with another, later, view of reality.” This contrast is the true subject of such paintings. 

Artists committed to understanding the nature of knowledge and reality by engaging in the world to investigate our material existence – like Cezanne, whom Walker quotes in these paintings – address the questions: how do we know what we see, and what exactly is it that we see? By taking a motif and playing with it in different configurations and contexts – “thinking through his brush” – Walker simultaneously engages with and explores the porous nature of exterior reality, interior reality, and painterly reality. He thus expresses the artist’s perception of the complex relationships among different realms of experience. 

John Walker, Riverview II, 2023, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

The history of painting has always run parallel to the history of ideas in Western culture. I believe Walker’s landscape paintings can be seen as embodying aspects of contemporary worldviews – including new materialism, speculative realism, and ecological phenomenology – which take seriously material entanglements with the more-than-human world and re-evaluate indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the sensuous earth. In going out into the landscape, Walker takes abstract painting away from the purely human realm of symbolic systems and subjective reflections about art history, painting, and self. Through an honest investigation of what he perceives and experiences, he reminds us that the natural world, though outside of art, is always ultimate the source of art.

In Walker’s initial return to the landscape, he didn’t paint the stunning, picturesque view outside his door. He painted the mud and the garbage left behind by the tide. In these paintings, the horizon is high and the land, upright, dominates the picture plane. These constitute a view of the world in which we are immersed in the muck. He puts us in the thick of it, asking that we confront chthonic forces and even take pleasure in them. It is not a detached god’s eye view of the world from a romantic subject looking out into the vastness of nature.

John Walker, Study for Clock + Shell III, 2023, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

While Walker painted outdoors in the Maine landscape for many years, he made his new work in his studio. For Walker, whether the painting is abstract or representational is unimportant. What matters is that the painting itself is real, as real as the landscape. He would take some of the earlier landscapes, which he started outside and then brought indoors to finish, back outside to ensure that they met this criterion. In this he seems to equate knowing reality with an awareness of the physical presence of being, in line with David Abram’s observation that “to make sense is to renew ones felt awareness of the world.”

John Walker, Black Pond II, 2023, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

The precise meaning of the paintings on a discursive level is unknowable, and I believe their insusceptibility to discursive understanding is part of their meaning. Just as in nature, understanding is achieved through a form of direct apprehension that only falls in part within the grasp of descriptive language. Objects that can be given names, like the shell and the handless clock, stand in for the ineffable.

Another way these paintings relate to Aboriginal paintings is in their relationship to ancestral history (in Walker’s case, painterly history) and the land. In Aboriginal culture, art is a way of connecting to the past and activating the powers of ancestral beings. Painting establishes an individual’s relationship to the land, which was forged by the ancestors themselves as their bodies became parts of sacred places.

John Walker, Embrace I, 2023, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

The Aboriginal ancestors are believed to exist in a spiritual dimension known as the Dreaming. Dreamtime exists independently of the temporal sequence of historical events and the linear time of everyday life. According to Stephen Gilchrist, “for Indigenous people, the past is understood to be part of a cyclical and circular order known as the ‘everywhen’” and “conceptions of time rely on active encounters with both the ancestral and natural worlds.” Perhaps Walker’s inclusion of Cezanne’s clock without hands represents a similar notion of time.

John Walker, Riverview, 2023, oil on canvas, 72 x 66 inches
John Walker, installation view at Alexandre Gallery

By painting over paintings, as in Riverview, Walker effaces temporality, making it a part of the present as well as the past and the future. This way of painting gives each image an extraordinarily material presence and expressive surface. Time is translated into space as something instant and revealed. By transposing time into forms of space, he gives substance and weight to these invisible dimensions.

Like Aboriginal religious objects, Walker’s paintings have the power to transform the artist and the viewer, moving the needle of reality and spiritual understanding from one metaphysical state to another. In his perpetual dialogue with artists dead and alive, Walker, like Yingarna, the Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal myth who swallowed people and regurgitated them later as features of the landscape, syntheizes artistic influences and transforms the landscape as a subject of painting. 

“John Walker, New Work,” Alexandre Gallery, 291 Grand Street, New York, NY. Through June 17, 2023.


David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

Dore Ashton, “John Walker: Paintings From The Alba and Oceania Series 1979-84”, Hayward Gallery, London, 1985.

Jack Flam, “John Walker”, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, 1982.

Stephen Gilchrist, “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art From Australia”, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 2016.

About the author: Lisa Taliano is an artist and writer who lives and works in New York City. She studied painting with John Walker in the MFA program at Boston University.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful essay, Lisa, and thank you to John Walker.

  2. Wonderfully illuminating writing Lisa! Thank you —! and Thank you John Walker for making these beautiful, poetic and powerful paintings.

  3. Lisa, this is such a rich and fulsome piece of writing, for what looks like an amazing show! (Can’t wait to see it in June!)

  4. Brilliant essay about provocative, deep and meaningful paintings.

  5. Thank you Lisa for a smart and insightful review of John Walker’s powerful paintings. Your decoding will help my viewing and enjoyment of his work.

  6. Cherry Pickles

    This generous description gives a way in to how to approach looking at the paintings and makes me want to see the physical canvases

  7. Thank you for this beautiful essay describing both John Walker’s work and it’s deep connection to both Australian Aboriginal Art and the Maine coast landscape.

  8. A very rich essay on Walkers work and the connections made from Cezanne , the land and Aboriginal views of land, stories and images. I always love his work and the visceral sensation of the color, paint and image but this essay gives me a deeper read into these new ones. Thank you and thank John for his dedication to paint.

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