It is not often an Australian painter reaches that point where his canvases function in international terms. The cloying competitiveness of the local scene, the way creators will scrutinise each other’s latest move, propels shallow ambition. Besides, there are no prospects here for seeing first rate current painting from Europe or the United States, what little art we are shown being inclined toward installation, conceptualism and Politically Correct fads.
So it took my breath away in October when, having just returned from Milan, one of Europe’s centres for contemporary painting, I saw John Waller’s latest abstractions. Confident, technically sophisticated, historically informed with an understated yet serene beauty, they exuded everything I had sought and savoured in overseas capitals of taste. This was advanced painting in an international grain.
Yes, there are here compositional echoes of our landscape tradition. Waller’s abstractions use a geometric armature that stems back through Fred Williams to Sidney Nolan and then Paul Cézanne. This can show in the thin painted bar along the top of several pieces, a residue of sky above horizon. But Waller has moved right away from landscape. His works do not press the suggestion you are confronting a tough planar view that sweeps into distance. Besides, he has shifted his palette. The dried grass ochres, the scratched earth umbers, the salt pan whites he once used have been so reduced they are sometimes eliminated altogether. In their place he introduces moodily atmospheric hues inclined to late dusk mauves and off grey pink.
Of course, Waller has always been a tasty painter. He often composes in what we might call relational terms. Each section of deftly handled paint is set so its colour, tone and texture plays off against—and harmonises—other adjacent sections. Seen up close this order of mature paintwork emphatically speaks of the artist’s love for what he is doing. So the viewer’s experience of looking at each Waller painting might be likened to hearing a passage of music performed by a virtuoso soloist. And you don’t have to read music to respond and enjoy when this happens. One can savour it on an immediate sensual level, letting the glistening notes, the tonal shifts, the carefully spiced rhythmic textures, lift and carry along your imagination.
Similarly these pictures sing directly to a sensitive eye attuned to quality, sing of an artist’s commitment to painting as best he can, his striving for a relaxed and cool gorgeousness, his belief in what he does. This is why they do not strain to impress, why they are not propped by jargon or abstruse theories, why they ignore provincial mannerisms. It’s unnecessary. Because these sensually worked compositions are entirely about John Waller painting to satisfy himself, being a means of his creative fulfilment. They offer visual pleasure, which is surely the primary duty of art; a deep, sustaining, quite cosmopolitan visual pleasure. And that is why they succeed.
Dr Christopher Heathcote October 2018
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