Dr Christopher Heathcote
Art Historian & Critic
Painter John Waller digs deep into the most inhospitable of Antipodean landscapes to capture the terror and beauty of nature.
From the flat, dry plains of the Mallee, the drought-ridden expanses of his childhood between the Murray River and South-Western New South Wales and the semi-arid desert landscapes of Central Australia, he unearths rich seams of luscious and evocative colour and excavates the vastness of its spatial qualities.
From the outset Waller has worked in the language of abstraction – counterpointed blocks of colour, sweeping earthy glazes, a minimalist layering and stripping back process, occasionally mixing media and materials with a degree of seamless virtuosity.
Waller grew up in Mildura in north-western Victoria, an unlikely and far-flung site for the uprising of Australian sculpture. The Mildura Sculpture Prize that evolved into the Mildura Sculpture Triennial (1961-1978) kick-started the recognition and staging of Australia’s contemporary sculptors fresh from the post-war Modernism of the UK and Europe.
It was a powerful and sophisticated introduction to abstraction and minimalism for the young John Waller of the 1960s.
He set off to study sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) where he acquired formal drawing and modelling skills that give his paintings depth and three-dimensionality despite the horizontal and rhythmic flatness of his compositions.
In his Mallee paintings he composes in blocks of rust and desert ochres, thick strokes of ‘saltpan white’ and splashes of turquoise sky blue.
More recent canvasses exhibited in his Transcendence series (2016) and later in his Space Time and Memory Series (2018) sing with vibrant colour and a clarity that transcend his earlier palette.
Art historian Dr Christopher Heathcote has likened these works to “hearing a passage of music performed by a virtuoso soloist…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.”
Heathcote also acknowledges his authoritative technical prowess with – “paint surfaces … so light, crisp and tastily executed…painterly notes of tone, texture and colour…. intricately orchestrated.”
Waller’s focus has always been on the great Antipodean landscape tradition.
A passionate art teacher, he commenced that career as an Education Officer at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) where he had an ‘up-close’ connection with the works of Sid Nolan, Fred Williams and Arthur Streeton.
In the late 1970s Waller took the first of many excursions to the semi-arid landscapes and aboriginal people of Lajamanu in Central Australia where he was struck by the structural rhythm of their paintings and their ancestral designs that connected them to their land and dreamtime. He was excited about what preeminent indigenous art curator Judith Ryan describes as their “bold aesthetic.”
It was a critical encounter that inspired Waller, not to mimic the unique art emerging from these ancient tribal painters, but to dig deeper into his own culture and place.
He had his eye on the explosion of colour emerging from leading landscape artists of the UK such as Peter Lanyon and David Hockney who’s Californian film “A Bigger Splash” had found its way to Melbourne in 1974, albeit in the darkness the city’s ‘raincoat” cinemas.
Californian Richard Diebenkorn’s lyrical abstractions that integrated a figurative element into his flat landscapes also had a lasting impact on Waller’s work.
It can be detected in the amorphous and haunting forms drawn beneath the thin glazes that float beneath the surface adding a light but deft narrative to his compositions.
Waller is the consummate Modernist. Both intellectually and creatively he has explored and mastered the unsentimental language of abstraction and the cadence of colour never succumbing to cyclical commercial trends.
His discipline, like that of a classical composer, has resulted in an enduring quality to his work that touches the soul and appeals to discerning Australian art collectors and critics alike.