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oranges are the only fruit

new paintings by John A Walker

oranges are the only fruit new paintings by John A Walker
London: Institute of Artology, 2006

Published on the occasion of an exhibition held at View Gallery from 22 April – 3 June 2006 View Gallery 34 High Street Thames Ditton Surrey KT7 0RY 020 8972 9706 info@viewgallery.co.uk www.viewgallery.co.uk
Front cover

Orange: ripe
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: bisected
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

The Orange Series I & II: An Interview between Rita Hatton and John A Walker

RH. From 1965 to 1975, you painted oranges. Why oranges? JW. At Art College I ended up producing large red/green abstracts and fetishistic sculptures, but after leaving in 1961 I felt dissatisfied by the lack of content and decided to return to nature.(1) I turned to fruit as a simple token of nature. Of course, it is also a sign of human culture because it is cultivated and a commodity because sold in supermarkets. At first I painted apples but since they were so redolent of Cézanne I switched to oranges. The subtext of the paintings was the theme of pictorial representation and the sort of games with it Magritte used to play – there was a vogue for Magritte in the 1960s. RH. Was the art education you received irrelevant then? JW. No, but it had been very puzzling because it had involved exposure to so many disparate sources, principles and influences. For instance, we were taught Basic Design, a modern course which involved exploring line, colour, structure and so forth separately. However, there was no guidance as to how they were to be brought together again. In one 1969 canvas I painted an orange three times in terms of line, tone and colour within one canvas but I left it up to viewers to bring the three images together in their minds. We were also taught historic academic disciplines such

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Orange: colour, line and tone
Oil on canvas, 137 x 91 cm, Orange Series I, 1969 Collection Sophie Orman

as life drawing and still life painting. The head of the Art College was a Euston Road figurative painter, the Master of Painting tutor was an abstract artist while his main assistant was a Pop artist. There was also the external influence of American Abstract Expressionism. I must have spent more than a decade after college trying to make sense of the art education I received. RH. Some might say your choice of subject matter was very narrow. JW. True, but if you study almost any object intensely enough it turns out to be very rich. Oranges have so many different surface features and textures and can be placed in a variety of relationships. You can show the outside and the inside and there are different brands and varieties such as Valencia and blood oranges. Furthermore, oranges can evoke parts of the human body; for instance, the navels of oranges resemble belly buttons or anuses. Printed words too can appear on the skins of oranges such as the brand names Jaffa and Outspan, and now one finds paper stickers advertising organisations like the Waitrose Foundation. Once I did try to depict the harsh social realities I witnessed in Holloway, North London but then I saw a television documentary about the same subject that depicted it far better than my painting could. There are now so many cartoons, documentary photographs and newsreel films depicting politicians, wars, famines and so forth it is difficult to see what painting can add. I do not preclude addressing social or political subjects in the future but I am troubled by the idea of aesthetic pleasure being derived from, say, a painting of the aftermath of a suicide bombing. At the moment it seems to me worthwhile to paint some affirmative images that will give people visual pleasure and stimulate their taste buds. RH. What other external influences were there during the 1960s? JW. In 1969, American astronauts landed on the Moon and images of its crater-pitted surface filled TV screens. I could not travel to the surface of the Moon but I could travel to the surface of an orange. In one painting I even included the kind of geometric grid that used to appear superimposed on the Moon in scientific photographs. A large painting of an orange also resembles the Sun. Another subliminal influence was the mandala image popular in the hippie culture of the period. Although I was not a hippie and not religious, I knew Ajit Mookerjee’s 1967 book on Tantra art and saw the Hayward exhibition in 1971 about Tantra. The mandala with its

centre-circumference dialectic was a symbol of wholeness, unity and integration. The circle too in Christian iconography is ‘the monogram of God’ – a symbol of eternity and perfection. Looking back, I wonder if I was attracted to the circle or sphere by a psychological need to hold a conflicted personality together. RH. Would you comment on some of the formal characteristics of the paintings? JW. Painting is a still or static medium; consequently, it best suits still lives of objects such as fruits. Of course, there is a long history of still life painting and botanical illustrations of plants and fruit. Painting is also a flat medium; hence, three-dimensional objects are a contradiction and have to be flattened – unless one is after illusionism. Paintings are conventionally square or rectangular in format; consequently, round objects have also to be adjusted to fit the shape of support. For one recent painting I peeled an orange and laid the peel flat in order to conform to the flatness of the canvas. The peel ended up resembling the map of an island. Fortuitously, the peel had a Waitrose Foundation sticker on it featuring a map of Africa, so the painting turned out to be a kind of pun. RH. It sounds as though you are following the dictums of the American critic Clement Greenberg in his famous 1961 essay ‘Modernist Painting’. JW. Although I have attacked in print the influence of Greenberg’s formalism, there are some things he said that I – as a painter – agree with. I think painting must play to its strengths if it is to compete against and differentiate itself other visual media. RH. What about scale? Many of your images of oranges are large. JW. Yes, enlargement is another tactic employed to generate fields of colour parallel to the picture plane. It also reflects, I suppose, the influence of close-ups of food in advertising photographs.

RH. The intense colours of your second series of orange paintings impress most people who see them. JW. As a young painter, I was strongly influenced by van Gogh and sought a comparable intensity of colours and colour contrasts. However, much of the credit for the vivid hues of the recent paintings must go to the British pigment manufacturer Michael Harding. His artists’ oil colours are expensive but brilliant. Colour intensity is one characteristic of oil painting that is superior to rival media such as television, photography, etc; also, of course, brushwork and the surface textures of hand-made pictures differentiate them from images that appear on screens. Today’s mass media are very powerful but there are still things painting can do that they can’t. RH. In one small picture, dated 1965, there is an orange enclosed in quotation marks. What was the reason for that? JW. It derived from my interest in the ‘language’ of representation. I was playing around with the idea of combining pictorial and linguistic elements. After all, most paintings have titles and so one could argue they are mixed-media. Later, theorists argued that post-modernism involved placing everything in quotation marks; consequently, I think I can claim to have unconsciously invented it or at least anticipated it! Another small work on paper featured a drawing and a photograph of an orange, a sample of the pigment orange, and a collaged map showing the town of Orange in Southern France. This work demonstrated the polysemic character “Orange” of language – the multiple meanings and Oil on hardboard, 25.3 x 34.3 cm, 1965. Orange Series I Collection John Stezaker, London. Photo: John A Walker references of the word ‘orange’.

RH. Some of the paintings seem quite sensuous, erotic even. JW. I hope so. One painting was a close up of a pile of oranges so that it constituted a landscape of rounded forms and warm colour for the eye to penetrate. Some views of oranges resemble female breasts and I recall painting a diptych showing two oranges side by side – one ripe and one rotten – entitled ‘The good and the bad breast’. This was a reference to the theories of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein that I read at the time. Appropriately, a doctor bought the painting. RH. Why did you cease making paintings of oranges? JW. My work evolved towards a philosophical reflection on the character of colour, using the hue orange as an example.(2) And then in other directions such as political photomontage.(3) During the 1970s, employment as an art critic and art historian also left little time for painting. RH. However, you have now resumed the orange series? JW. Yes, since I retired from lecturing I have the time and there seem more ideas and themes to explore. For instance, I have become fascinated by the iconography of popular imagery – postcards and the like – emanating from ‘the land of oranges’ (Florida and California in particular), which depict orange groves alongside streamliner trains, orange blossom pageant queens, and so on in a utopian manner.(4) In addition, there now seems to be demand for the paintings, which was lacking in the 1960s and 1970s. RH. The painting ‘Orange blossom Queen 1948’ with its four juxtaposed images reminds me of James Rosenquist’s Pop art from the 1960s. JW. Obviously I am familiar with the Rosenquist’s work and I agree that painting does recall his. However, there was no conscious influence. So much imagery has been produced over the centuries it is virtually impossible to create new images that do not in some way resemble earlier ones. I decided not to worry about it and I also think early Pop art merits a revival.

RH. Your painting of a sun-kissed eve from the land of oranges was inspired by postcard imagery of California. It seems rather kitsch and does it not depict a mythical realm? JW. Yes. Sometimes a painting seems to dictate the direction it takes despite one’s initial intentions. I was surprised and taken aback by it but decided not to censor myself by destroying it. The image is mythical in character but I feel that, unlike the Biblical Garden of Eden, it has a grounding in truth – California is a land of sunshine, it is a rich, fertile state with a substantial citrus industry and oranges and orange juice are – reputably – healthy products; Hollywood too is a source of suntanned female flesh. Another painting consisting of four images of orange picking was also based on postcards. In this instance, two images of female beauties with baskets picking oranges were juxtaposed against two images of male labourers picking oranges from ladders. Both kinds of postcard were sold to visitors to California but my aim was to contrast a touristic conception, on the one hand, with the reality of large-scale orange harvesting on the other. Juxtaposing images in this way harks back to the 1970s when I and others in London were reading theorists like Roland Barthes and John Berger, undertaking critiques of mass culture images and making montages from them.
1 John A Walker has described his art school education in a pamphlet entitled: Learning to Paint: A British Art Student and Art School 1956-61, (London: Institute of Artology, 2003). 2 See John A Walker’s pamphlet: A Few ‘Semiotic’ Paintings of 1975, Unknown and Destroyed, (London: Institute of Artology, 2002). 3 For a history, see John A Walker’s book: Left Shift: Radical Art in 1970s Britain, (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000). 4 See, for instance, the illustrations in Brian and Richard Weaver’s book The Citrus Industry in the Sunshine State, (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999), The Postcard History Series. Colour postcards are also sold via the ebay auction website and larger images via poster websites.

John A Walker (b. 1938, Lincolnshire) was trained as a painter in a University art department in Newcastle upon Tyne from 1956 to 1961. In 1958, he won first prize in a painting competition organised by Tyne Tees Television (the judge was Lawrence Gowing). On graduation he moved to London and worked in the Civil Service, public and art libraries, and for many years wrote art criticism for a range of art magazines and taught art history in a number of British art schools. Before he retired in 1999, he was Reader in Art and Design History at Middlesex University. He has written 15 books and over 100 periodical articles about Van Gogh, John Latham, the fine arts and mass media, and visual representations of firefighters. In 2005 he resumed painting after a gap of two decades.

SOLO EXHIBITIONS: Univision Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1958; The Gallery, London, 1975; View Gallery, Thames Ditton, April-June 2006 GROUP EXHIBITIONS: Lincolnshire Art Association Annual exhibition 1956; Young Contemporaries 1958, 1959, 1960; London Group show 1965; Small Paintings exhibition, Wills Lane Gallery, St Ives & Bulls Eye Gallery, Lichfield, 1972; ‘Art & Society’, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1976; Farnham Maltings Show, 1976; ‘Death Show’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Dec 1987; ‘Eat art’ exhibition The Robert Phillips Gallery, Walton on Thames, November 2005 EXHIBITIONS ORGANISED: ‘Van Gogh in Provence’ (Book & photo display) Camden Public Library, 1970; ‘Rosa Luxemburg & Karl Liebknecht’, Pentonville Gallery, London, 1986 COLLECTIONS: Works in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and several private collections. For more biographical details, see the website: www.artology.info

Rita Hatton studied the history of art at Middlesex University. She is a director of the Institute of Artology and joint author of the book Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi, (London: Institute of Artology, 3rd edition 2005); she is also a painter, mother and business executive.

Orange: section
Oil on canvas, 127 x 101 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Heavy orange
Oil on canvas, 10 x 14 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: node II
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: navel II
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: configuration upper left
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: large node
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Valencia
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange mountain against grey background
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange blossom Queen 1948
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Sun-kissed Eve from the land of oranges with super-chief streamliner
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: two or one?
Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange: peel
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange picking (from American postcards)
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Miracle brand
Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, Orange Series II, 2005

Orange slices
Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, Orange Series II, 2006

Mandarin segments
Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, Orange Series II, 2006

John A Walker in Esher, Surrey in January 2006 with ‘Orange: node’ 2005 (left) and ‘Orange: navel’ 2005 (right)

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