John Walker in Birmingham

Second year student Nadia Sommella comments on John Walker’s exhibitions currently in Birmingham’s Ikon and University galleries.

The Birmingham art scene is having a John Walker moment. His artworks are currently being shown at both Ikon (a contemporary art gallery in Brindley Place) and our very own University of Birmingham’s Rotunda Gallery in the Aston Webb building. 

But who is John Walker and what’s his relationship to Birmingham? Cate McQuaid has Walker called ‘one of the standout abstract painters of the last 50 years’ and is currently Professor Emeritus of Art and former head of the graduate program in Painting and Sculpture at Boston University School of Visual Arts in the United States. 

He was born in Birmingham in 1939 and studied at the Birmingham College of Art, which is how the University managed to acquire many of his earlier works: the current exhibition spans the period from 1966 to 1996. 

John Walker, Ripple, 2017 

Ikon also has a history with Walker. He was the first artist to show at the gallery when it moved to its new premises in 1972. Ikon’s current exhibition entitled ‘New Paintings’ showcases Walker’s contemporary art practice, presenting work from 2016-2019.

It is interesting to compare these two exhibitions, illustrating the progression of Walker’s work, from early minimalism to towering bright abstract canvases. This is an artist who has lived and travelled, having spent time in the UK, New York, Rome, Paris, Australia, and now residing in Maine, and his artwork reflects this. Walker reacts to his surroundings and while his early works can be seen as a reflection on industrial landscapes, his recent paintings are preoccupied with the natural world. 

John Walker, New Paintings, Ikon Gallery

Abstract art can be hard to get your head around. In Walker’s own words, ‘if you’re looking for what they’re about, they’re not about anything, other than paintings’. His recent canvases celebrate paint. They are tactile and richly textured, geometric forms smudge and bleed into one another emphasising paint’s liquid materiality.

His artistic legacy is varied and has been enriched by changing landscapes in his travels and life abroad. But it retains a British grittiness that we see in the work of other British artists, such as George Shaw and L. S. Lowry. John Walker may have left Birmingham 50 years ago, but we are certainly glad to have him back. 

John Walker, Anguish, 1966 

John Walker: Works from the Campus Art Collection 1966-1996 runs until 13 March 2020 at the Rotunda Gallery, at the University of Birmingham

John Walker: New Paintings runs until 23 February 2020 at the IKON

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