My end-of-summer reviews concentrated on two centuries’ worth of artists from Maine. But a pair of museum exhibits looks farther afield. “Surrealist Play Gone Astray” at the Portland Museum of Art (through Oct. 23) is a jewel of a show about this emphatically eccentric movement, which was concentrated mainly in Europe, but spread worldwide, notably to Mexico.

Though John Walker has been a Maine painter for some time, living and working in South Bristol, and though the majority of the works in his exhibition at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art depict the particular stretch of coastline where he resides, he’s a native of Birmingham, England, and draws much inspiration from European art and from that of Aboriginal artists he encountered while living for a decade in Australia. “John Walker, from Low Tide to High Tide” (through Oct. 31) is a stunner.

The Surrealists were an obstreperous bunch. They coalesced in the aftermath of World War I, with a desire to seek freedom from all forms of art that preceded their movement. “I want to assassinate painting,” declared Joan Miró. They mined the subconscious, claiming in their manifesto that Surrealism “proposes to express, either verbally, in writing or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.”

The aim was to get beyond the rational to express something more wild, dark and uncontrollable about humanity’s true, unsocialized impulses. These artists reveled in the odd and unsettling, in sexual anxiety and violence, and they also used their art as a form of protest. An example of the last is “Italian Square” (1954) by Giorgio de Chirico. His subject was the city of Turin, a place he considered corrupt, “inhabited by scientists and the King, by politicians and warriors, standing still in their jaded, solemn poses on their stone plinths.”

De Chirico’s austere piazza conveys a sense of sterility and near abandonment, save for two figures dwarfed by the architecture. A distant train suggests that progress and forward-thinking have passed the city by, the railroad circumventing a place no longer worth visiting.

Yves Tanguy (United States, 1900-1955), Untitled, 1937, oil on canvas, 21 ¾ x 18 3/16 inches. Isabelle and Scott Black Collection. © 2022 Estate of Yves Tanguy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York © 2022 Estate of Yves Tanguy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Across the room is Yves Tanguy’s “Untitled” of 1937. It’s another desolate landscape, but this time looks extraplanetary, evoking the mutated creatures and barren, windswept terrain we might associate with science fiction. Tanguy’s encounter with de Chirico inspired him to paint, making the two works of a piece. They converse with each other across the small gallery.

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Paul Delvaux’s 1938 “The Greeting (The Meeting)” is like the love child of de Chirico and René Magritte. The setting is another public square, this time with a trolley in the distance. But here it is dominated by a suited Delvaux and the half-naked woman he is greeting, both figures as tall as the architecture. They are almost expressionless. When we look closely, we see nude women peering at them through the curtains of windows on the buildings, heightening the eroticism of the scene.

Two artists probe the shadier, painful side of sexuality. German artist Hans Bellmer’s 1935 “Poupée atop Broken Wicker Chair” is a picture of a dismembered female doll, the sexual organ and breasts seemingly rubbed red-raw. And Miró’s “Composition” of 1939 presents, in the words of a wall plaque, “disembodied genitalia, dismemberment, and displacement.” These squeamish works illustrate just how far Surrealists were willing to go to destroy every art history canon.

There are some magnificent works in “Surrealist Play,” among them two Magrittes. “The Heart Revealed, Portrait of Tita Thirifays” of 1936 is weirdly elegant. Thirifays is painted in color, but just behind her is her ghostly double, suggesting she exists on this plane, but also in another dimension of reality. The ghost’s statuesque white countenance also evokes the story of the Biblical Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the angels and veered around to gaze back at the destruction of Sodom.

René Magritte (Belgium, 1889-1967), Le Faux Miroir, 1952, gouache on paper, 5 5/8 x 7 ½ inches. Isabelle and Scott Black Collection. Image courtesy of Luc Demers. © 2022 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Magritte’s 1952 gouache on paper “Le Faux Miroir,” of an eye whose whites reflect a clouded sky, feels unsettlingly like the gateway between the interior mind and the outer world. Eyes, wide and staring, were important subject matter for Surrealists. I could not help recalling Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s wince-worthy scene in “Un Chien Andalou” where a straight razor slices an eyeball (actually a dead calf’s eyeball, but knowing that makes it no easier to watch).

Miró’s 1966 “The First Spark of Day III” is simply a ravishing painting, a link between the Surrealist’s idea of automatic painting and the abstraction that would eventually supplant the movement. The show is a gem and makes a case for how revolutionary this movement was. Though it continued into the 1950s and ’60s, Surrealism began fading after World War II. Why? As Magritte wrote to André Breton, “The confusion and panic that Surrealism wanted to create in order to bring everything into question were achieved much better by the Nazi idiots than by us.”

THE GLORIES OF MUD

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I first became aware of John Walker’s paintings in the 1980s, while bartending at the sadly now defunct restaurant Café Loup in Greenwich Village, which catered to artists and intellectuals. The owners were art collectors and had purchased a Walker painting. What struck me then – and still holds true for Walker’s work – was the viscous, tar-like corporeality of his paint. Mucky, thick and luxuriant, it seems, like a peat bog, to swarm with organic life.

Walker’s paintings of mud flats spied from his windows are completely consistent with this gooey, clotted application. Indeed, in some he mixes dirt into the pigments, giving them a more visceral body. He has called paint “only colored mud,” which both indicates his respect for the earthiness of a material used to create so-called “high art”– its rarefied intentions seemingly elevated above the basicness of the medium – and his working-class upbringing in the industrial city of Birmingham, where soot and grit were part of life. It would have been especially so for Walker, whose earliest years unfolded during the Birmingham Blitz, as Nazi forces bombed the city and surrounding towns because of their strategic importance as industrial centers. Mud was surely everywhere.

But mud also relates to his father’s experiences during World War I, which left him a damaged man. This could explain Walker’s interest in English wartime poets, such as Wilfred Owen and Welsh poet and painter David Jones, who wrote about the war and, invariably, the mud of the trenches. And it surely played a part in his fascination with Aboriginal artists, who worked with the red clay of Australia.

It’s perhaps not strange, then, that the beauty of the Maine coast was too much for Walker – too beautiful, too scenic, too magisterial. It wasn’t until he really noticed the mudflats that he finally found something in that landscape with which to identify.

Mud, in a way, is a kind of redemptive material, a common substance that unites everyone and connects the many disparate episodes of Walker’s life. Through it he can remember his birthplace, express something essential about his father’s wartime experience that the older man was unable to express himself, and touch the deep spirituality at the core of Aboriginal art.

John Walker, Seal Point Series #091, 2005, Oil on Bingo card, 7 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches. © John Walker, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York. © John Walker, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York.

Mud created the path that allowed Walker, finally, to include more traditionally beautiful elements of the Maine landscape – the blue channels that run through “Seal Point Series #V VIII,” the blue sky and watery rivulets of “Untitled Panel Painting #3,” the rock outcroppings and liquid blue pools of “Beano #9 Seal Point Series #K36,” or the John Constable-like clouds in “Untitled Bingo Card” of 2005 (Constable is one of several artists – along with Rembrandt, Goya Velazquez and Malevich – whose work had an impact on Walker’s style).

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John Walker, Sea Cake II (Winter 04), 2004, Oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches. © John Walker, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York.

Shapes are holders of meaning for Walker, whether it’s the lozenges of the 1970s, a shape from the ’80s often described as resembling the silhouette of Goya’s Duchess of Alba portrait or two particular forms in the current paintings. Many, such as “Sea Cake II (Winter 04)” pull shapes from the tidal pools left when the ocean recedes. But some shapes recur, particularly a globular form that tapers almost to a point like a tear drop. It appears in “Untitled Bingo Card [KM 127],” “Untitled” oil on Bingo card from 2010, and “Untitled” of 2007.

John Walker, Dawn—July 01, 2001, oil on linen, 84 x 66 inches. © John Walker. Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York

A sort of hourglass shape appears in “Dawn-July 01” of 2001 and “Untitled Panel Painting #4” of 2013. Likely these shapes were also inspired by tide pools, but Walker found something in them that apparently bears repeating. Their meaning may not have been apparent to Walker himself, who has recalled that he only realized the Goya source of his Alba form after cutting paper in that shape in his pursuit of bridging figuration and abstraction. These shapes, then, represent a kind of figuration that connects abstracted works to a source in the landscape he is painting.

John Walker, Pemaquid #21, 2016, Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches. © John Walker, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York.

“Dawn-July 01” also seems to harken back to Walker’s time in Australia, where enigmatic markings pock the bisected oil-on-linen work. This episode of his life might also have played a role in the way he depicts the moon’s reflection across “Pemaquid #21,” which essentially uses zigzagging lines to indicate the movement of waves across the surface plane.

Teeming with gestural energy, and with stabs and daubs that barely suggest trees, birds or sailboats, Walker’s works feel as alive and resplendent as nature, while simultaneously telegraphing a rawness of emotion that is impossible to deny.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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