I make 2-dimensional work with lines. The images I make are of cities, I draw and re-draw cities. Recently I have been slowing down the speed I make the lines. The images I end up with are stiller. I am interested in seeing the patterns humans make on the planet from different distances. I change the scale of buildings. I am interested in how far these patterns reach in time and space. Do human structures have any effect on nature, on animals, the weather and climate. Does the human pattern of building have any impact on the past or the future?
Composition for me is a mathematical presence in the arrangement of the lines. The speed and tension in the lines picks up on music, sounds and vibrations. I also jot down words and graffiti from the urban experience. In my work the cities are often upside down, the smallest buildings at the bottom under pressure. The lines are made with stitching, ink, scratching through oil paint I do this is to create as much contrast as possible and to extend the essentially traditional practice of painting. The cities have started forming centralised shapes, crosses and columns, or icons. They are not attached to the rectangular edge any more.
I am currently creating 2-D compositions with white lines. The white lines are on the surface of older paintings. The lines in white form a unity, they work together this cuts them off from the earlier painting below. By working over the paintings underneath they sink and darken under layers of pigment and black ink.
The original paintings are sometimes reduced to just their texture, a patchwork, or collage. In the past I glued pieces of cut up oil paintings, travel tickets, photos into watercolours. I combined the traditional media; watercolour and oil paint. These complex works now form the background of my current compositions. The re-working is in water-based media, to which I add dry media, chalk and pigments, the paper I use is 76 x 56 cm. If there is no tension or purpose in the white lines or they don't hold together I erase them and re-paint them.
The lines are formed of dashes with a rhythm in them. I often need time to have enough distance to see the true nature of the painting. All of the motifs in my work come from distant views of cities. I turn the cities upside down to give them a suspended look also to make them abstract. The paper is also suspended vertically.
The current work is all based on images of Hamburg, a city I visited recently and viewed from church spires that survived the 2nd World War. In a piece of music; Hubeau's trumpet sonata, composed in Paris in 1942, the piano sounds as if it is accompanying something completely different to the solo it is written to accompany. This fascinated me and I wanted to see if it were possible to get two layers to turn away from each other, and face in opposite directions in a painting.
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