Narrative has always played a strong role in John Walsh’s paintings yet his storytelling has never been prescriptive. In this exhibition of new paintings, it is especially elusive as the suite of landscapes supporting the epic I can’t stop loving you are without his archetypal protagonists. Where earlier series have been populated with figures protecting land and culture these pristine environments have no guardians. The need to protect is pre-empted by the work titles: No one’s here it’s ours; No man’s land and State Asset. Then in 51% Smoke, a spectacular cloud rises from a dark forest. If we notice a hint of heat at its base the cloud takes on the threat of fire. Another work, a haunting fiord land like valley system is titled Power Station. It begs the sub title Dam this! This grouping could be a commentary on our relationship with the land, and its loss through current political agendas, but like the paintings themselves they are not preclusive and no singular interpretation is given.
The colossal five meter canvas and namesake of the exhibition, I can’t stop loving you is the heart of this show. It is technically and stylistically more considered and layered; something of a departure or, if you are familiar with his very early portrait work, it is an amalgam of skills. It is the only work with figures. The palette is fuller and richer and the figures occupy a much stronger presence than Walsh’s characters have done previously. There is a sense that we have wandered to the edge of another world and find ourselves eavesdropping on an event or ceremony of a culture we are only vaguely aware of. The patriarch’s expression suggests he might have noticed us. Walsh has engineered a tricky perspective and intriguing scenario. We are looking down on foreshortened figures and they are balanced on a limb by the swing of a cloak or the tug of a tethered kaitiaki (bird). At the back of the gathering two vocalists hover swanlike with their long necks and embracing wings. The limb they are perched on divides their world. Behind them is their dark and unknown interior and ahead where they gaze, water becomes mist and a glowing passage. Perhaps they are farewelling a loved one.
Throughout the exhibition Walsh’s palette remains refined although light aquas are dominated by darker greens, umbers and blues adding a more ominous feeling to these works. A lightness of touch lends his surfaces that familiar mystical reading. And although the adjectives whimsical, ethereal, eerie, magical, mythical and political adhere to these works as always there is a power and strength here that sets this show apart.