INSTEAD OF SPREADING and stretching, the recent paintings of James Walsh concentrate and condense. The paintings are small and thick -- as much as four or five inches. Their small scale seems to appropriate the scale of the traditional easel picture, a scale common to Impressionism, Post Impressionism, and Cubism, yet despite this Walsh's paintings lack the look and feel of easel pictures. They've developed out of the conventions of expansive abstraction, conventions that have been with us since the 1950s, but they judiciously reverse their terms. Where Pollock, Louis, and Newman painted on a generous scale with thin paint and luminous color, Walsh paints on a modest scale with generous paint and dense, opaque color.
His paintings possess in the extreme a quality that I can only characterize as "objectness"; they borrow from the physical presence of sculpture without surrendering to the sculptural. They remain resolutely pictorial. Their pictorial character is nowhere more obvious than in paintings where lumps and swirls of paint float within a sea of thin, flat color. These paintings recall the 15th Century glazed reliefs of Luca Della Robbia, but whereas in Della Robbia's reliefs color is applied to the surface of a preformed clay structure, in Walsh's paintings colored paint becomes itself the substance of relief.
This materiality has been influenced, no doubt, by Walsh's experience as a sculptor. During the '80s, alongside his painting he made abstract sculpture in clay, ironically sculpture that inclined to the pictorial. In 1986, after closing Clayworks, the clay atelier in New York run jointly by himself and his wife, the painter Ann Walsh, he turned to painting exclusively. Starting with medium-scale abstraction, his paintings shrunk progressively in size and -- aided by thick acrylic mediums -- increased substantially in bulk.
Walsh's color, though thick and piled, contradicts the sculptural. Often earth-toned, with seams and stains of dark and light, it contrives to both suggest and resist the materiality of sculpture. Color surfaces, as it were from deep within the paint substance, impressing itself not through optical resonance, but through the very material of paint: paint like clay; paint like stone. Here is abstract painting with a new kind of immediacy, painting in a semi-sculptural mode, painting more actual than optical, but pictorial nonetheless.
Its immediacy is akin to modernist flatness, but if anything more actual and insistent. If the thickness of Walsh's painting is new, its immediacy is part and parcel of its modernist heritage. A precedent for it can be found in Picasso's Synthetic Cubism. Picasso was a sculptor par excellence, if only on occasion, but he painted like a sculptor born into a pictorial world. More than any artist of this century, he made painting something of a thing. Sculpture and the sculptural was an ongoing leitmotif in his art: the Vollard Suite, after all, is largely about the sculptor and his model and the great Cubist paintings and collages of 1912-14 are paintings masquerading as relief.
Collage doesn't enter into Walsh's painting, but the sense of the picture as a thing in itself, as an emphatic singular thing, insistently remains. I can think of no recent paintings where the spirit of Picasso is so emphatically and tellingly present.
-- February 28, 2000