James Walsh (1988)
Essay for exhibition catalog, Galleria Joan Prats, NY, September 1988.
This group of pictures ought to convince anyone who can see paintings just how good James Walsh is. He has come along strong in the last few years and has become one of the very best of the new abstractionists. This is fine, serious work.
Walsh's painting method can be called Post-Cubist painterly abstraction. It has its roots in the Minimalist reaction to Abstract Expressionism and evolved from the fundamental changes made in painting by the painterly abstractionists who matured in the '60s and early '70s. To my eye it is the home style of most of the best painting of the last twenty years and the most advanced and fruitful procedure available to painting today.
Cubist abstraction, which reached its fulfillment in the work of Jackson Pollock, divides the canvas into fairly regular areas adjusted to the picture edge. Post-Cubist painterly abstraction forsakes Cubist organization in favor of spreading and covering and makes the most of what paint does naturally by pushing, pouring, spraying, piling, scraping, scrubbing, troweling, incising and direct mixing. The typical painting looks like a magnified detail of an Impressionist painting: rich, lush, broadly brushed, informal, ungraphic, slow moving thick-and-thin tracts of stained, scraped, caked, pooled and squeegeed viscous paint in low-hue and tertiary colors. The effect on the eye is a surface charged with sensuous rather than compositional variety. The art is in what the paint is and does, not where it is located, or what it comprises. In Walsh's hands it is an art of strength and sustained effect.
Black Degree, which is illustrated here, seems at first to be a traditional figure-ground composition. A closer look shows us that the "figure" is not a form applied to a background but a coalescence of paint, a blistering or a tangle, and that the dark values clustered in this caught moment are the mere consequence of the natural opacity of thickness, just as the light values of the white ground push through where the paint has been thinned and scraped down. There is a lively sense of vibration and compressed instability, as if this dusky gathering might soon roam to an edge or a corner or sprawl around like the milling pearls of ochres of Jacaranda or shared into the agitated scattering of Sharp Nines.
It takes courage to paint like this these days. James Walsh is juggling on a high wire with no net and no props while the spotlight is on the clowns doing pratfalls. These paintings are animated by direct, rough-and-ready improvisation tempered by judgment, counseled by experience and uncluttered by pandering allusion. They are a naked record of painting well the hard way.