Essay: Maria Walker and Charles Miller

Posted on February 11, 2013

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Charles Miller. “Untitled.” Oil on canvas. 2010.

Charles Miller works on paintings in year-long cycles. Giving a group of eight or ten canvases a single motif from his summers in Maine, he develops them through the fall, winter and spring months in New York, until a return to Maine provides the impetus for a new body of work. It’s an annual cycle dictated by the painter’s work schedule, but also at some level by the rhythms of the natural world.

Miller’s attraction to Maine is the stark beauty of its landscape, and his charcoal drawings are a testament to the connection he feels to his surroundings. His drawings of water, trees, flowers and grasses are completely un-selfconscious, as direct a transcription from nature as any I’ve seen. Despite the large number of forms that one finds in the drawings, for a body of paintings Miller chooses just one, a surrogate that acts as a symbol for his entire experience of nature. For nearly every year I’ve known him, I can think of one such symbol, among them a burst of wild flowers, the diagonal dashes of water or wind-swept grasses, a vertical band of a birch tree, a quilted pattern of squares adding up to a cluster of trees, and a plump seed caught in a strong web.

To enter Miller’s studio in the basement of a Washington Heights apartment building is to be surrounded by these emissaries of a quieter place. One is struck by how powerfully these painted symbols evoke a genuine encounter with their natural counterparts. Equally striking is the sense that their associative function is empowered, rather than inhibited, by their abstraction. Working from the twin removes of time (months later) and place (New York City), Miller is precluded from the landscape painter’s avenue of depicting nature strictly as it appears. Thus the abstraction, which emerges from Miller’s need to endow the images with some other analog for his lived experience.

Uninterested in conceptual or ideological short-cuts, Miller searches for meaning through the very act of painting. Properly integrating his painted symbols into the environment of their canvases becomes his only task. It’s a process that stems from the formal questions that his pictures present (Is the scale correct? How does the form lead the eye through the picture? How does one mark look against another?), but that must, on a metaphorical level, satisfy the related requirement that his painted forms stand in relation to their painted environment in a way analogous to how natural forms stand in relation to theirs.

It is by satisfying the latter requirement that Miller’s paintings contain a fundamental insight about the way we experience the natural world. Rather than the discrete forms that plein air painters traditionally articulate by hierarchies of light and space, Miller’s symbols are articulated as a function of their surroundings, simultaneously belonging to and emerging from their thick atmospheres of paint. A pine tree, a birch, a blade of grass and a flower; each takes form not by its distinction from its environment, but by its very connection. Satisfying his painterly criteria at the very moment in which his forms are equally part of, and apart from, their surroundings, Miller works with a metaphor that articulates real truths about our experience of the natural world.

Maria Walker. "First Things First." 28" x 20.5". Acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood. 2007.

Maria Walker. “First Things First.” 28″ x 20.5″. Acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood. 2007.

Maria Walker makes exquisitely beautiful, light-filled canvases that take their materials from the world of painting but their singular identity from her world of careful articulation. Creating unique three-dimensional forms from a balanced interaction of wood, canvas and paint, Walker moves painting away from one of its traditional functions of illusory depiction—as in the Renaissance conception of a window into the world—into the sculptor’s realm of physical embodiment. Her canvases are constructed for consideration in the round; they’re stretched and re-stretched over specially built supports, and stained from both sides by poured paint. Entailing a constant recalibration of these materials, Walker’s working method keeps each in play until the paintings reach a state of equilibrium.

Walker’s canvases are mostly non-representational. Her deconstruction of the traditional painting surface stems from a reconsideration of the role that each material must play. The surface illusions of paint on canvas become, in Walker’s new constructions, just one of the many factors that comprise the larger experience of the work. Reveling in an open-handed display of the materiality of wood, canvas and paint, the works invite an appraisal of their physicality that renders questions of representation marginal.

What dictates the formal decisions behind non-representational language? For Walker, chance, time and intuition each play a role. The paintings might take their structure from a calendar (twelve bumps of the stretcher under the canvas to dictate the monthly pouring of paint), their color from the spectrum (red poured next to orange next to yellow next to green next to blue next to violet) and their final form from the addition or subtraction of a stretcher bar, or the removal and re-stretching of the canvas.

Take color as an example. If the same yellow appears in a number of Walker’s canvases, it may do so on different terms each time. Yellow may stain one canvas as part of the painter’s effort to understand the visual effects of her color inventory, another because it’s what goes between orange and green, a third because it was chosen randomly, by lot, and a fourth to satisfy some criterion that belongs to her alone. Employed neither to stand for a patch of grass, nor a flower, yellow exists in the paintings simply as a fact of perception. But there is nothing arbitrary here. The success of the works bespeaks just how keen the painter’s intuition is.

Walker is also a poet, which provides a ready analogy for her paintings. Her painter’s language of objects, not description, of things, not ideas, finds its corollary in a poetry of nouns. The poems operate as a function of their construction; the nouns are modified by their relationships to other nouns, never by an adjective. Built from the nouns of painting, Walker’s canvases are the profoundly physical articulations of these very modifications.

Charles Miller. "Untitled." Oil on board. 2012.

Charles Miller. “Untitled.” Oil on board. 2012.

Maria Walker. "Victory!" 16" x 22.5". Acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood. 2008.

Maria Walker. “Victory!” 16″ x 22.5″. Acrylic, unprimed canvas, wood. 2008.

This exhibition is not an invitation to compare these two painters so much as an invitation to consider each on his or her terms. The rigor with which they each explore their particular painterly languages—and the striking integrity of the result—is the primary link between them. Yet the particular working methods of each do not preclude common ground, and viewers may begin to find small affinities—in color, light, and mood—pulsing among them. If so, this is the pulse that animates any successful artwork, whereby the unique articulations of its particular language are its very link to the world at large.

-Written on the occasion of the exhibition, “Maria Walker and Charles Miller,” Dedee Shattuck Gallery, Westport, MA, April-May 2013-

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Posted in: Essays