Altered stretcher bars, torqued and triangulated planes, backs as fronts—the work of Maria Walker is a lesson in harmonizing tradition and experimentation. But the path she’s taken hasn’t been an easy one. She has pushed her materials and flowed with them in order to elicit a distinctive sense of aesthetic truth. Many of her paintings involve dense soakings of pigment while others have a reworking of the stretchers that gives them the ability to stand on their own without being wall-mounted. A few pieces involve no canvas at all, which obviously changes how they’re approached and perceived. Through all this exploration, there’s a sense of sureness that surrounds what I consider challenging and thoughtful work. In the interview that follows, Maria offers concise insights into her working philosophy and the work itself.
|Summer - Summer Solstice, 2011-12, acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood, 65.5" x 49"|
|Return, 2011-12, wood, 42" x 22"|
|Untitled (Orange and Blue), 2011, acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood, 16" x 14.25" x 4.5"|
PB: Your work struck me as entertaining questions of image and object. What’s your personal take on it?
MW: I approach my paintings as objects. I think of the wood, the canvas, and the paint in terms of their physicality, and I work to find a balance of these elements through my interaction with them. Images in the work arise as a visualization of this exploration. When a painting is successful or good, the image is integrated as an essential, necessary aspect of the object. The danger is when/if I indulge too much in the image aesthetically, making choices that take the painting away from its physical being. By closely considering the wood (the stretcher), the cloth (the canvas), and the paint, each element keeps the other two in check, questioning and verifying the necessity, directness, and clarity of each part.
PB: As you’ve looked around through recent and longstanding art history, whose work has made an impact on you?
MW: Two people specifically stick out in my mind. The first is Matisse, in particular the complex balance between lightness and rigor in his work. His paintings breathe with color, air, space, and joy, but as an artist he worked for each painting. There is honesty in his paintings, at times failure, but always pushing forward, very brave and open. He is one of the artists I remember first seeing as a child. His cutouts made clear sense to my child mind. In grad school, looking at his paintings helped me face and embrace the very difficult growing pains of pushing open my work.
Second, I think of Donald Judd at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I went to Marfa with my graduate school class, and to see that work in the context of the vast, empty Texas landscape blew my mind. I grew up in the flatness of Ohio, so I was really excited to see artwork that met that landscape so directly. Seeing his work helped me think about space, directness, and scale in my own. There were bells and whistles I could shed that allowed the work to step forward with more clarity.
PB: What challenges and considerations have you run into because of the experimental nature of working with canvas in this way?
MW: I work with the unprimed canvas because when the paint soaks into the cloth it becomes a part of it, part of the object itself, rather then sitting on top of the surface. Unprimed canvas is a challenge because it is not protected in the way that it would be with traditional oil paintings. So I take pains to keep it protected and clean (which is difficult in a small studio with a saw!). But these are objects, and eventual accumulation of wear may become visible, and that will become part of what it is. If it is a good painting, that shouldn’t matter.
PB: Have you found yourself thinking more about the canvas and its needs rather than just the pigment and what it’s doing?
MW: I think about the canvas as much as the paint as much as the wood. It comes back to that balance amongst the three materials. There is a large range of what canvas is—weight and weave, linen, drop cloth, cotton, wool. Each has its own color, weight, and density thereby responding to the wood and the paint in its own, specific way. The same goes for the wood and the paint. Different kinds of wood have different colors and weights and densities. Different paints have different translucencies, viscosities, respond differently to water, surface, and each other.
PB: Does music or historical figures and cultural situations/problems ever figure into your work?
MW: I rarely make work based on these things, though they may peripherally affect the energy in the studio. I’m more likely to figure in the element of time, whether it is a particular time of year (which affects decisions about color and light), or more objectively working with the idea of documenting time in the paintings. The second idea manifests in the calendar paintings; these document a specific period of time in the studio, usually using as a basis a stretcher divided into twelfths (as in a clock or a calendar). In the spaces of the clock, I pour the leftover paints from other paintings as I’m making them. The calendar paintings become an inventory of the other work concurrently made in the studio, and also a visualized document of the specific time frame.
PB: What’s on your reading/looking/listening radar lately?
MW: I am nearing the end of “Within A Budding Grove”, which is the second book of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I love it! The book is seven books long, well over thousands of pages, so the scale of the experience of reading it is very different than any kind of reading experience. It is immersive and reflective, the language physical and descriptive… It recreates the experience of living while standing outside of that experience.
Also on my radar is my work as an art therapist. I work with adolescent kids with severe mental illnesses. It is hard, exciting work that keeps me aware of humanity and my trust in art making. It is a great antidote to the cynicism that can come with the art world.
PB: Any advice?
MW: The advice I repeatedly give myself is to find my own clear sense of time. It is easy to be waylaid especially by the speeds of technology and the art world.
I also say to myself: See, see, see lots of art!And: If there is a painting you want to make, make it.