Mercurial, the title of John Walsh’s new exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery, is to be in a continuous state of change and evolution. Deriving from the Latin mercuriālis, it is also associated with the Roman God Mercury, the messenger, who serves as the guide to the underworld and is, perhaps, related to Manaia and Marakihau the messengers of our Ao Maori (Maori world view). The ethereal ecosystems of Walsh’s paintings might also be mercurial in nature, traversing a fluid truth between myth and reality where figures emerge from familiar yet uncertain landscapes with beings and creatures constantly morphing. Walsh’s mixed Aitanga-a-Hauiti and New Zealand Irish ancestry has long informed his practice, frequently combining Maori oral histories and cosmology with their European counterparts to express the constant negotiation between cultures and their environment.
The centrepiece of Mercurial is a large scale painting depicting a pod of whales in an inhabited harbour. Entitled Not Stranded, it’s an Eco Socialist hui, the painting springs from the knowledge that historically whales would gather in Wellington harbour as the shallower, warmer waters allowed for recuperation while channels from the Cook Strait provided ample food resources. From this, Walsh’s painting departs from a specific narrative and journeys into a realm of non-linear time. Nocturnal creatures emerge quietly from vegetation in the foreground, suggesting a future that we might preserve – an Eco Socialist vision. This is further underscored by the painting titled He Manuhiri. In tikanga Maori, Manuhiri are guests, visitors. In He Manuhiri a visitor lands on the shore of a majestic airily lit land where te tangata whenua, people of that place, apprehensively meet him. We are incidental witnesses and perhaps we too are guests, needing to take care.
Where Walsh’s practice combines legend and history, it also is an amalgamation of abstract and figurative painting. “My current practice is more process-driven. Even though it’s figurative, it’s very abstract, intuitive – following the brush and the way the paint moves. Always evolving with narrative possibilities.”
The narratives of his paintings can be inspired by actual events, past or present, profound or mundane – as in Now, I’m the human, you’re the dog and therefore exist at no time/all time at once. Perhaps surprisingly, Walsh’s process-driven practise often begins with no clear subject or narrative in mind, his paintings evolve organically as a reaction to the relationship between paint and surface and not unlike an abstract expressionist; decisions are made intuitively in the moment. The beginnings of a figure emerge from abstract brush marks, and then Walsh considers what that figure is seeing, feeling, hearing, and builds a world around them from their perspective. His painting technique has a uniquely reductive, sculptural quality, i.e. the figures that populate his narrative studies appear to emerge out of the landscape, as Walsh carves them out of the wet ground he lays down.
Mercurial follows a major survey of Walsh’s portraiture, including the triumphant display of his 20-metre long mural A Portrait of Uawa Tolaga Bay He Whakaahua o Uawa, at the National Portrait Gallery in Wellington that opened in November 2018.