- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

The Phillips Collection sometimes exhibits extraordinary work by artists who are relatively unknown in Washington, such as the paintings of New Yorker William Scharf last year. Now the museum is giving us a similar treat with works by Boston artist John Walker.

Though rarely shown here, the British-born Mr. Walker, 62, has exhibited worldwide. He recently received praise from major critics for exhibits in New York City.

Born in Birmingham, England, he has lived in Australia, commuted between England and the United States in the 1970s and currently teaches at Boston University. He has shown twice before at the Phillips, in 1978 and 1982. It's about time we got another look at his work.

Mr. Walker's romantic, emotional, thickly textured, light- and-color-filled canvases are eminently suited to the Phillips' mission of collecting and showing intensely hued, boldly brushed art.

The exhibition, simply titled "John Walker," celebrates the gallery's purchase of a major Walker painting, "October Low Tide, Maine" (2000), last year. In showing five works from the 1970s and early 1980s that belong to the Phillips, plus 17 paintings from 2000 and 2001, the exhibit also serves as a kind of minisurvey tracing Mr. Walker's unusual development.

The display begins with paintings on an ambitious scale, mainly of acrylic, collage and acrylic gel. They are large 10 feet tall collaged and painted canvases, including "Ostraca II" and "Untitled" of acrylic, chalk and canvas collage on canvas (1976). These, including also "Roundout Alba III" (1980), belong to the Phillips and show the earlier physicality and movement of the artist's work.

Exhibit curator Eliza Rathbone, chief curator at the Phillips, says Mr. Walker was considering both abstract expressionism and the history of painting in the 1960s. "He was looking to where he might engage in the current issues of painting in our time. He was interested in imbuing abstract painting with feeling," she says.

It's clear he was aware of abstract expressionism as well as such painters as Goya, Manet, Matisse and Velasquez. The swinging movements of "Ostraca II" show his interest in bold, collaged configurations combined with tenderly brushed paint. The surface textures are important, and his strong handling of light and color also predicts his more recent work.

Mr. Walker summered in Maine for many years, but it was only in the past three years that he started painting the landscapes around him there. Before, he had refused to choose between abstraction and realism. Now he's moving more toward representation in his paintings of the coast of Maine. He tackled this subject with the aim of avoiding the beautiful and picturesque.

Just as the American 19th-century writer and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau sharpened his beliefs and ideas at Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., so also did Mr. Walker find new inspiration at a shifting tidal pool in a muddy cove near the coast of Maine.

In a room adjacent to the first, large gallery holding the earlier works and the new purchase "October Low Tide, Maine," Ms. Rathbone displays the intensely emotional smaller studies that led up to it. She effectively clusters the darker, muddier-looking images on one wall and places the brighter, orange-red complementary ones on another.

The artist distills the eddying cove in organic, biomorphic forms and often divides the abstracted shapes into lights and darks. He extends the roughly brushed, heavily impastoed landscape to the high horizon line of sea and sky. A tiny, rounded shape sits on the horizon, probably a nearby island. Though small, the studies show an intensely emotional response to the landscape and its endless changes of light, color and weather.

In Maine, this kind of site is called a "dirty cove," and the painter made no attempt to beautify it, as the large "October Low Tide" shows. Seven feet tall, with a thickly textured surface of expressive brush strokes, the work overpowers through size and paint strokes that seem to burst from the canvas.

The pool, now larger and divided into two curved shapes, one gray, the other a dirty gold, lies on a flattened landscape that quivers with darkly scumbled reds and emphatic flicks of white. Mr. Walker has pulled down the landscape at right with bold, roughened brush strokes of blacks over reds. He has made the sky and sea an intense ink blue.

Even with a smallish show such as this, it is obvious the artist is a painter to watch. The Phillips should be applauded for bringing him to our attention.

WHAT: "John Walker"

WHERE: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, through Aug. 3.

TICKETS: $7.50 adults, $4 students and seniors

PHONE: 202-387-2151

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