A Pantheist Finds His Place: Sandy Walker at Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Sandy Walker: In Nature at Elizabeth Harris Gallery
February 7 to March 9, 2013
529 West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-463-9666
Although Sandy Walker studied in New York in the 1960s – at Columbia and from its second year of operation at the New York Studio School –and went on to exhibit with some frequency at Grace Borgenicht Gallery through the next decade, his career has mostly centered on the Bay Area where he settled just as his New York career was taking off. And with the exception of a show of graphic works at the non-profit Wooster Arts Space in Soho in 2004, he has been absent from New York purview ever since. His current show, therefore, at Elizabeth Harris Gallery has the vibe of a debut, albeit one that pulsates with the accrued energy of a lifelong exploration of his elected idiom, lyrical, representational expressionism.
The show focuses on landscape, but in Walker there is always a triangulation of impulses: the other magnets are the human body in motion and the inherent calligraphic qualities of given mediums (he is equally consummate in ink drawing, oil painting and woodcut). Just as a typical Walker dancer tends to spawn branches and rivulets, so too his landscapes are anatomical and sexed, recalling the “heaving bosoms and exulting limbs” observed by John Ruskin in the Swiss Alps.
While his exuberantly brushed, improvisatory landscapes veer towards the pantheistic in a generalized evocation of nature, they also seem, and in fact are, rooted in direct observation of actual places to which the artist has deep and meaningful connection, and ecological concerns. Many, for instance, depict terrain in Washington State, where the artist has a cabin; others were painted en plein air or from sketches in such locales as Arizona. The results nicely balance visceral gusto and pictorial intelligence.
In some works in this show the body-land equation is quite explicit, as in the Milton Avery-like Human Nature III, (2010) with its distended hills/torso in black sandwiched by a green foreground field and blank white sky. More compelling, however, are the landscapes where jagged hatch work clinging to the horizon constitutes a “recumbent figure” of subtler ambivalence, in IJ Bar Song II, (2011) for instance, or in the hand-like form of the smaller canvas, Mountain Moment, (2011) with its chocolate tones and boldly slathered strokes.
The artist is evidently drawn to wildernesses—to mountains aloof from human habitation, to primal forests. His style, though indebted to an American pastoral tradition that includes Avery, Neil Welliver and Alex Katz – or perhaps because it belongs so squarely to that tradition, fused with classic AbEx bravura and a respectfully focused understanding of Asian aesthetics – has an air of innocence suggestive of another triangulation, between the virgin landscape observed, the freshness of the marks made, and the repeat “debut” of the returning native.