Ben Walker: Picture Box
Life in early colours
Jack House Gallery 16th May- 20th June
It takes a moment or two to pinpoint one’s reaction to the paintings of Ben Walker. Is our discomfort because the images seem borrowed unbidden, jackdawed from something familiar, as if stolen from a personal memory? Or is the unease actually a sensation of pleasure, at a snapshot of a fleeting past, captured and preserved in a precise moment of innocence that had been forgotten until now, suddenly released like a bird or seed-head? It all makes sense when the artist explains how his pictures happen. “I use photos and other ‘found’ source materials such as old children’s book illustrations for my paintings. Over the last year or so I have become interested in making representations of childhood rooted in the past, often 1970s and 80s,” he says. “It has to be a scene or composition I feel I can translate into paint and I think the act of translating the image means it becomes mine. It’s impossible to say how I choose some images over others. I like simple compositions and I try to show a lot with very little,” often leaving out something substantial from the original, “so the painted image is a simplified condensed version.”
He is an ardent collector, as much as he can afford to be. “It’s mostly small scale paintings, quite traditional landscapes, also some pictures of children. I have some lovely watercolour sketches of English landscapes from the 1950s that are simple but quite delicate and some items associated with WW2 like photo albums.” Music is very important too. “I think Joy Division, the Cure and the Durutti Column all have this grey English/British atmosphere and this is very important to me.” It is his collection of Joy Division memorabilia that he is most proud of. “I have lots of records, bootlegs, rare books and fanzines, photos, a setlist.. prices can be very high but when you start collecting it can take hold of you. Searching for and finding things is a good buzz but you have to be so careful financially!”
In complete contrast to the airy expectant voids in his paintings, Walker has a job in overcrowded supported housing for homeless men. “I would say I mostly enjoy it, although working with this client group can be difficult as they have a lot of problems and can be quite antisocial. I try to keep it as a separate part of my life.” With a considerable background of study, exhibition and creativity in London, he decided to forsake city life and now paints at home in the scrubby open-skied reaches of Erith where he can be close to his girlfriend and his cats, and concentrate. “I am very careful about colour, I love the combination of shades of grey, with some areas of richer deeper colours, of placing them until things fit. I work on loads of paintings at same time, building up thin layers, I alter them, scrub things out, change my mind. Sometimes I have to live with a picture for awhile before I can decide whether it is finished.”
Growing up in what the Jack Goldhill prize winner describes as a “very suburban small town/village,” he had many friends and by his own happy submission, a great childhood. “We did go out in the countryside a lot back then, that’s probably why I like to paint outdoor scenes.” As a child he loved nature and he has finally returned to it. “It’s what I like to look at and think about and remember.”
Ben Walker maintains he doesn’t begin his pictures with a story, that at first it is more about depicting or expressing a mood. “Often it’s only when they are complete that I begin to think stories could be read into them.” That’s where we come in. It is now our turn to tell those stories at Jack House Gallery.