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John Walker

Passing Bells

September 10, 2006 — November 19, 2006

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“Check it out: Poetry readings commemorate Veterans Day,” The METROWEST DAILY NEWS,
November 9, 2006

John Walker: Passing Bells

The following is excerpted from a catalog containing illustrations of the 27 Passing Bells, etchings by John Walker and text by Jack Flam. Courtesy of the Nielsen Gallery, Boston, MA.

John Walker is not only one of the best painters of his generation but also one of the most independent and unpredictable. During the 1960's, he first came to prominence as an abstract painter working in a flat, planar style. This was a time when for many people flatness and pure abstraction were synonymous with artistic seriousness. So when Walker began to introduce illusionistic and even figurative elements into his work, he was seen as something of an apostate. But within a few years, partly because of Walker's willingness to break the rules, the rules themselves had changed and abstract painting was revitalized by a new strain of exactly the kind of "impurity" that Walker had pioneered.

During the past few years Walker has done something even riskier and more unexpected. He has dared to deal with literary and historical subjects that are inherently fraught with powerful emotion. And he has done so with such wholeness and such intensity as to make the longstanding dichotomy between abstraction and figuration seem surprisingly irrelevant.

The etchings in Passing Bells take their title from the opening line of Wilfred Owen's poem, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," and their subject is the carnage of the First World War: "What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?"

These are unsettling, at times harrowing images. Their violence lies not only in their themes of mutilation, shell shock, and mental anguish, but also in the way they are rendered. In them, the expressive means of etching and aquatint are exploited with electrifying intensity. This is evident in the rawness of the drawn lines, which at times are like exposed nerves, and in the way the corrosive action of the acid on the plate is made to eat away at our sensibilities just as they did the metal. Seen one at a time, these are powerful and moving works. Seen together in sequence, they become overwhelming.

The iconography of Passing Bells is deeply personal. Walker has said, for example, that the figure in uniform with the sheep's-skull head is specifically meant to evoke his father. The image of the sheep's skull, in fact, runs through the whole suite of etchings and takes on several different meanings. Some relate specifically to war imagery.... Other images of the sheep's skull are loaded with religious and historical connotations, ranging from the sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament to the image of Christ, as well as to the flock He shepherds. The sacrificial animal reminds us also of one of the most harrowing of all of Wilfred Owen's war poems, which retells the story of Abraham and Isaac, but in which the father does not stay his hand:

But the old man would not so,
and slew his son,--and half the
seed of Europe, one by one.

And of course, within the specific history of the First World War, one of the most haunting of all the stories that have come down to us is that of soldiers wandering through villages on the eastern front bleating like sheep in helpless protest at the way they were being led to slaughter.

In the Passing Bells etchings, John Walker offers contemporary art an implicit prod and rebuke, and reclaims for high art an unembarrassed depth of emotion. By starting from an historical experience rather than from a body of previous pictures, Walker seems to be turning his own head, and forcing us to turn ours, to a different reality - almost like one of the fiercely contorted images in the etchings. For in these etchings he has not only reintroduced a deeply committed subject matter, but he has done so with a vengeance. And in so doing, he has crossed over a line that artists of his generation were not supposed to cross. He has confronted the raw subject matter of journalists, photojournalists, and historians and transformed it into something that retains all of the immediacy of those media that are rooted in the flow of daily events, while at the same time attaining the transcendent nobility of high art. Part of what is so extraordinary about these images is the degree to which they give themselves over to strong emotion without becoming in any way sentimental. And part of what is so pictorially daring about these images is the degree to which they operate in an arena that we associate with Goya and Picasso, to whom they make numerous allusions, while at the same time remaining independent and original works.

John Walker, Passing Bells V, 5 plate color etching and quatine, 2000
John Walker, Pass Bells V, 5 plate color etching and quatint, 2000,
Courtesy the artist and Center Street Studio

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