I make 2-D work starting with lines. The lines are the edges of city structures. Some of the lines are drawn to contain colour. With colours I create a composition, then I paint over the colours with black or white picking out the lines, leaving them visible. The bright colours underneath peep through giving an internal light. The effect of the black and white is to make the white areas present against the black patches appearing absent. Painting around the lines makes the space solid. This is a recent change in my work a move away from the lines existing in a void.
I make these works to find the patterns of human habitation I look at the geology and depth of history in old cities, or areas occupied by man. Luxembourg and Stockport have been of interest to me because of the deep ravines and bridges over these. Rivers change course in cities, as the river has in Sheffield, making the city re-orientate buildings. I explore old 19th century maps, made before maps were gridded as they have more details of lost places. When I make my paintings there is an element of performance, the lines have a varying energy in them.
The cities I create are a shorthand for many other forms of human activity, such as music and science. When working with musicians I was surprised how easily I could communicate with them, particularly those improvising from visual art and my work. Another line of inquiry in my work is looking at Labanotation and how this brings music, and movement together with my city lines. There seems to be music there in my work ready for musicians to pick out.
Digging into the Quicksands of Time: Jane Walker’s Divided Cities as a
Metaphor for Civilisation’s Lack of Civilisation
‘It has become easier to divide people than to unify them, and to blind
them than to give them vision.’1
Throughout history, nations and cities have been divided. Reasons have
been various, but include race, class, politics and religion. Even today, in
the so-called ‘first world’, cities such as Nicosia and Jerusalem remain
riven and Rome has an independent country – the Vatican City – at its
centre. In our contemporary society, divisions are proliferating – nations
are becoming disunited and, witness the Brexit vote in the UK, unions
In her recent series of paintings, Jane Walker both divides and unites,
creating jigsaw-esque topographies of ‘divided cities’, with stark
boundaries, but new borders: Marseilles meets London; Paris meets
New York; travel is both prohibited yet made conceptually possible.
Walker has long been painting cities and professes to a strong interest in
the English topographical watercolour tradition. Initially wanting to
become a concert pianist, from the age of seven, and with a brief foray
into the study of medicine, she went on to train at the Royal Academy
Schools (1987-90), at first painting more traditional portraits, but a visit
to India led her away from conventional Western figurative painting.
Attracted to ornate Eastern window traceries, her own work became
increasingly linear and decorative. A move to Sheffield 25 years ago then
provided Walker with wide-reaching views from her studio, looking out
and down across an ever-changing cityscape. She began to paint what
she saw, but not quite as she saw it…
All two-dimensional art requires some form of spatial translation, be it
through the use of formal techniques, such as linear perspective,
creating illusory space that makes the viewer ‘see’ three-dimensional
depth on a two-dimensional canvas, or the more contemporary choice
of choosing to play with a viewer’s visual perceptions of the world itself,
subverting the figurative or landscape traditions and questioning the
very language of painting. Walker, impressed by the compressed space
in the work of her tutor, Sonia Lawson, sought to escape the confines of
illusionistic space and mimesis. ‘The background space in my work is
deliberately undefined, unanswered,’ she says. While, at first glance, her
works might seem to resonate with modernist and abstract expressionist
paintings – lines of emotion, vivid colours, intertwined and bouncing off
one another, sparking conversations and kindling feelings – a closer look
reveals a depth within her canvases, as well as recognisable figurative
elements. Her artistic trick, then, is to invert what she sees so that the
larger buildings are on top, weighing down on the smaller ones. Taking a
slightly bleak, if realistic, view, Walker sees this as a metaphor for what
is happening to cities today, whereby the pressure of increasing
populations, high rents, lack of space and congestion hangs heavy. Her
lines, which, on the surface, seem to hold things together, are brittle.
One worries as to how much more pressure they can take.
While Walker’s linear style might be seen as an exploration into postcubist
– digital even – formal deconstruction of the pictorial space, it is
arguably also an employment of Byzantine – or inverse – perspective.
Walker herself describes ‘a move backwards to a fragmented medieval
space’. Byzantine perspective – frequently used in the painting of icons –
locates the vanishing point outside of the painting, where the viewer
stands, rather than within the painting, as is the case with linear
perspective. The viewer thus experiences multiple points of perspective,
which has been described by the Atelier Saint-André as ‘allow[ing] the
viewer a window into the Kingdom of God’.2
Perhaps not inappropriately, then, Walker’s paintings also call to mind
medieval illuminated manuscripts. From a distance, the horizontal
sequences of marks might easily be mistaken for lines of Arabic or
Hebrew script. Even on knowing whence the imagery derives, one
cannot help but look for hidden meaning in the calligraphy – this
‘indelible writing on the landscape’. And elements are indeed buried in
these archaeological canvases and panels, for Walker works in layers,
building up and sanding down, creating a palimpsest out of ghostly
traces. Between the planes is a pictorial space, different from the illusion
of space suggested by perspective. Aware of this scriptural similarity,
Walker sometimes creates an edge to her composition, like the
decorated border of a manuscript – another demarcation or boundary
line, attempting, perhaps, to restrict the growth of the cities within.
Metropolises abound enough.
It was a friend’s throw-away comment that the line seemed to be the
most important aspect of her work, that led to Walker ridding her
practice of nearly all else, focusing solely on this line – reducing her
painting to its drawn – or perhaps written – essence. For more than a
decade, Walker worked in watercolour, her painting becoming
increasingly graphic. She sees her current style as a distillation of
watercolour techniques, transferred to oil paint.
Her process begins with photographs that she takes from high vantage
points – the Natwest Tower, the Empire State Building, upstairs in her
studio – looking down over cities. She inversely projects these images on
to her panels, canvases or papers and traces the outlines in black,
simplifying and subtracting as she goes. She then builds up layers of
wash, in different colours, before painting over the black lines in white.
This, she sees as ‘almost like trying to write across things’, creating a
photographic reversal, transcribing and translating. Layers are built using
primer, often repeating the process – reprojecting, redrawing,
relayering, repriming – to create a mesh of hidden worlds. With her
divided cities, each section is drawn from the projection of a different
city, arbitrarily partitioned, amorphously shaped. Areas are marked out
atlas-like, new boundaries defined with primer. String and cotton are
sometimes worked into the layers, adding further tension and divisions –
every strand, every mark, demarcating, dislocating, dissevering. Vertical
clefts appear when the paint drips downwards, pooling at the bottom, in
contrast to the tiny buildings, collapsing under the increasing weight
above them, dissolving into nothing, sinking into the quicksands of
imagination, vision and time.
Colour is significant to Walker as well. Sometimes she paints ‘stripes’
across her compositions, dividing the cities still further. Contrarily, the
wash on top softens their outlines, blurring the boundaries beneath.
Identifying with the Northern landscape tradition, in which light is
important, yet colour tends to the monochrome, Walker sees her lines
as the encapsulation of light – almost as if she were drawing with rays,
tracing the photograph as if it were itself a drawing. In between these
lines, beneath and above, she uses complex, contrasting colours,
pushing the boundaries in yet another dimension. On the surface, she
often uses silver or gold, to pull out the imagery still further. Like the
Sienese master, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s, Walker’s linear and decorative
style maintains a lyrical note, with the use of colour creating pattern and
rhythm. Depending on the angle from which you approach one of her
works, the white outlines luminesce and reflect – or perhaps refract –
different colours from their inner rainbows. There is an element of batik,
or of scratching away at the surface to reveal what lies beneath.
Indeed, Walker describes her work as ‘trying to do something between
writing and image-making’ and as ‘looking down and seeing what we’re
going to leave behind’. The ruins of previous civilisations lie hidden
beneath the sand, sometimes covered over and built upon, before being
rediscovered and revealed. This ongoing process of defining, destroying,
disguising and deciphering – humankind’s action towards its urban
habitat – is metaphorically re-enacted in Walker’s work. Thus, while her
compositions, overall, might seem – even seek – to divide, they most
certainly do not blind. If anything, they open their viewers’ eyes to a
whole new realm of possibilities and understanding, both for the past,
the present and the future. If only civilisation could learn some
© Anna McNay, December 2016
1Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem, Boston: Awakened Press, 2011
Jane Walker: Short Frieze 2007
Much of the painting and sculpture of past centuries was ‘site specific’, originally commissioned for a designated altar, public square or council chamber. But the phrase usually refers to something modern and cutting edge, often falling into the interstitial categories of environmental sculpture or mixed media ‘installations’. These days, relatively few painters undertake ‘site specific’ works. Unusually, for her exhibition Jane Walker has chosen to make a substantial series of twenty paintings specially for the Atkinson Art Gallery in Southport, conceived together as a running frieze the length of one of its exhibition spaces. Over a period of time she has become fascinated by Southport’s civic art gallery, and other buildings like it. She has made her paintings so that they ’key in’ to the gallery itself, reflecting its colour scheme and proportions, as well as its origins and raison d’etre. But the paintings have also been made so that they can lead another life beyond the time frame of this exhibition, either together as a group or as discrete, self-contained works.
Like the civic art galleries in many Northern British towns, the Atkinson Art Gallery bears the name of its Victorian benefactor. It is a surname that has remained familiar to local people, while the particular biographical and economic trajectory that lies behind the name has largely faded. In 1878 William Atkinson, a Manchester cotton manufacturer who retired to the seaside at Southport, donated the means to build an art gallery and public library in that town. Like many of the public buildings of its time it echoes the forms and decoration of classical architecture. The pediment of the building features figures representing Art, Science, Literature and Commerce paying homage to that of Inspiration. In low relief are shown the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, the architect Ictinus, and the poet Homer. A classical education (something else that has subsequently faded) was a prerequisite for understanding these references.
Jane Walker has always been an unequivocally figurative painter, strongly focussing on the use of colour in recent years. A visit to India had a significant impact on her work, motivating her to move away from the Western tradition of painting, which she felt was “too heavy, too dark, and brought too much baggage with it”. She became attracted by such things as the decorative traceries of traditional Indian windows, and these featured in frieze-like works in vibrant watercolours on translucent Japanese papers. The articulation of paint became linear and decorative in nature. At the same time, she looked at the political assumptions underlying the use of certain colours and motifs in painting, in particular in the works of those painters who have become known as the Orientalists. Trelliswork windows, for example, attractive in themselves, signify sequestered spaces behind which women were kept apart. The delicacy of the imagery, and the fragility of the medium, echoed, she thought, the equally fragile condition of urban civilisation, that could be disrupted or torn at any moment.
She admixed these visual themes with her interest in the English topographical watercolour tradition. And, back in her Sheffield studio, she began to paint the houses around her in the same way that she had depicted the vernacular architecture of India. With this current series of paintings she is responding to a desire to paint in oils on wood, a more resilient medium, while retaining or developing the essential qualities of her ‘Oriental’ drawings.
The panels which comprise this frieze do not really function as supports in the way that traditional oil painters’ canvases pretend to virtual flatness. The larger panels are constructed like boxes from strong plywood. Their 7.5cm thickness is undisguised, equivalent to the stone slabs on which architectural friezes are carved in relief. The smaller painted panels are similar to the square ‘metopes’ that are rhythmically interspersed in a classical Doric frieze. The front surface and edges of each box-like panel are painted all over with a flat ground of ‘unbleached titanium dioxide’, a beige colour quite close to that of the gallery walls.
In contrast to the structural solidity and uniformity of their support, however, the painted marks that teem over these surfaces appear fleeting and insubstantial in the material sense, as if they might at any time move across the picture surface, like digital images on a computer screen. Much of the painted imagery has been traced initially from photographic sources. The artist transcribes these tracings with linear brushstrokes of traditional oil paint, leaving the light ground to show through. This is not a process undertaken mechanically, and viewed from close to there are unexpected evocations of the later paintings of Raoul Dufy. Different colours, such as sepia, ochre, Indian red, ultramarine and Prussian blues, olive and pink predominate or are used exclusively in different parts of each painting. White is added to some of the colours, giving them an opalescent quality. Sometimes these different areas of colour overlap or intermingle. On other panels they are banded like coloured graphic overlays.
The juxtaposed images on each panel accord to a predominating theme, like pages of illustrations in a children’s encyclopaedia. There are a lot of delineations of architectural fragments, urban spaces and cultivated parkland. One panel is devoted to windows of French buildings; another shows castles and parks in Luxembourg, where the artist spent much of her early life. Other panels are not so geographically specific: one shows European courts of justice. In some cases, images of buildings from different countries occupy the same panel, sometimes incongruously. Alongside these pan-European visual references go others from much nearer at hand: parts of the decoration and memorial inscriptions from the exterior of the Atkinson Free Library, and Southport’s Victorian shopping arcades.
Fragments of architecture and the built environment are not the only elements depicted in these ’compiled’ catalogues of images. One panel shows a number of depictions of political demonstrations, another features decorative linear studies of folds of sculptural drapery from the Elgin marbles. Other things, such as numbers and flags, are half hidden elsewhere. In some ways, the visual impact of these works relates to graphic practices outside the delimited world of modern fine art. They have a ‘retro’ look, like the line illustrations accompanying travel articles in Vogue or Harper’s during the 1950s. They also hover on the margins of other mark-making activities such as mapping and writing. Textual montage is introduced here and there in the form of headlines from European newspapers. The panels in which these found texts predominate have the same flavour as poesia visiva, a hybrid Italian strain of the concrete poetry of the 1960s.
Although their subject matter does not relate to music, there is also a discernible musical element to the way the paintings are disposed. The artist originally studied music at the Luxembourg Conservatoire, and she perceives a rhythmic ‘musical’ quality to these works. The vertical bands of imagery that occur at intervals throughout this frieze are visually like the equivalent bands of varying musical activity in an orchestral score. At the time of making these panels, Jane Walker was getting to know the music of the contemporary composer Gyorgy Ligeti. The superimposition of compositional grids in Ligeti’s music, its contrasting cloud-like micro-polyphonies and bands of sound that undergo colouristic transformation, provide a match for the formal qualities of her paintings. The panoramic dance of historical found images along this frieze is also reminiscent of the swirling montage of spoken political texts and found fragments of historical orchestral music in Luciano Berio’s 1968 Sinfonia, composed at the height of student unrest in European cities.
Jane Walker’s activity as a painter is underpinned by her application of an ongoing self-critical, deconstructive analysis of its nature, of a kind not always evident in the practice of figurative artists. She sees these paintings as being evidently ‘quite pretty and delicate’, intimating at the same time that they represent ‘a screen of things’ behind which she conceals a somewhat darker political commentary in visual form which remain open to multiple interpretations. In this instance, the subject matter of the paintings revolves freely around depictions of the place in Southport for which they were conceived, other institutional edifices around the world, and more mercurial representations of civil unrest. Perhaps the fragile, seductively colourful and cosmopolitan quality of these paintings embodies the temporal mutability of the function and identity of civic urban architecture while questioning the related solid paradigms of philanthropic giving for educational purposes, and the consequent public acquisition and ownership of works of art.
‘City Lines’ by Jane Walker
Thrilling and dangerous in equal measure, the city is rich matter for creativity – a multi-layered organism demanding a response. Jane Walker’s fascination with the subject compels her to harness its essences and make manifest her feelings.
‘City Lines’ at Sheffield’s Fronteer Gallery is a body of work that has evolved, like a city, over the last few years. A number of the paintings have been re-worked, with earlier iterations still apparent, leaving clues of an archaeology of painting activity. As we continue to dig we uncover fragments that could be from Schiele or possibly Klimt amongst the strata. The resultant grey leaves us in no doubt that we are in the heart of a concrete jungle, with these palimpsests of documents as our guide.
A pair of works that fall under the artist’s bracket of ‘Slow Lines’ are visually the most complex in the show, making adept use of packaging paper as its substrate. The simple, fragile lines of ink imply a view of buildings, and the printed images on the found paper recall the advertising billboards and screens so prominent in our city centres, battling for our attention and disposable income. So we are thrown into contemporary metropolitan living – a bombardment of partially obscured, random images and dizzying movement. This feels like a beautiful, poetic representation of a memory of standing amongst the mayhem of a crowded Piccadilly Circus. This may be an example of how photography would fall short in recording such a specific, nuanced experience. When Walker takes us by the hand it comes with a whispered warning to be careful out there.
In the pieces on paper, the artist subtly harnesses the qualities of the materials, allowing thin paint to stain the surface in the grand manner of watercolour painting. This action initially serves to break the tyranny of the blank page and steers the next stage, which appears a delicate balance of very particular decision-making and faith in intuition. There is tangible warmth here – a quieter part of town, perhaps. The city, like a painting, is made of areas of high activity and its municipal parks, places to catch your breath. Walker clearly loves belonging here, yet remains able to compile a critique of the occasional disconnection that occurs in her surroundings.
The most eye-catching work on display is a series of four pieces, also under the category of ‘Slow Lines’. Thin lines of white oil paint suggest a range of architectural forms. These are intriguing to decipher as some describe a windowed multi-story, whereas others are more nebulous, implying buildings under construction or being demolished. All the while, the lines remain very definitely ‘paint’, reminding and reaffirming that we as spectators are simultaneously engaged with both an art piece and an interpreted narrative of navigating the city.
The marks Walker makes bear close analysis. They can be interpreted in several ways and are therefore highly engaging. They could be an attempt to replicate movement – of traffic, obviously, but also of electricity and the information superhighway, particularly in the pieces the artist classifies as ‘Fast Lines’. The lines, be they controlled, painterly or sgraffito, could be read as shorthand or an adapted, highly-personalised form of hieroglyphics. Maybe they are, like graffiti, a primal statement of presence, a desire to be seen or acknowledge one’s own existence amongst the chaos – self-expression, etched gestures within the confines of Painting - so that the thing produced is an amalgam of controlled rage, skill and patience. To physically cut into one’s own work is quite a powerful statement to make. There is certainly a faint echo of Mark Tobey’s automatic writing, flickering and fluid. It is testament to a rigorous practice and vital mind that the artist finds so much variation within strictly set parameters. We can assuredly identify a piece by the artist without feeling as though we have seen it before. The marks are enough alike to present a most coherent proposition.
The exhibition is a concerto in three movements – a different tempo and timbre within each, but still clearly part of a greater structure. Walker has given us enough enigmatic variations to encourage, and greatly reward our scrutiny.
Text by Sean Williams July 2021