John Armstrong

Laurie Walker
A Material Writing of Things
Gairloch Gardens (Oakville Galleries), Oakville, Ontario

There are exhibitions in which the juxtaposition of site and artwork create a surprising and insistent mutuality. The possibility of this was undoubtedly part of independent curator Barbara Fischer's rationale for proposing seven of Laurie Walker's recent sculptural works for exhibition in the Gairloch Gallery. The gallery is housed in a converted private residence nestled in a lakeside park setting just west of Toronto. The park contains stunningly mature trees, a treillaged rose garden, banks of perennials, and, on good spring weekends, several wedding parties. The house — gabled, up-market neo-Tudor with split sandstone — was originally built in the 1920s and is an ode to the Arts and Crafts Movement. The gallery, panelled in bleached oak with carved foliate trim, retains much of the original interior. Some of Gairloch's romancing of the Old World is to be found, in an editorialized form, in Walker's sculpture.

In Wandering Bower, Solanum planetum (1989), Walker presents an antiquarian copy of Pliny the Elder's Natural History (in Latin and German translation). The volume lays open on a shelf, its pages imprinted by stains left by a pressed spray of bittersweet nightshade leaves and berries that rests across it. Accompanying the book, is a framed watercolour depicting a flowering and fruit-bearing branch. The watercolour is painted by Walker in the delicate manner of an eighteenth-century botanical illustration and captioned in both a roman and a cursive italic script. There is no plant that bears this precise name (Wandering Bower…) nor entirely resembles the image in the watercolour. Walker’s appellation might easily have slipped out of a Shakespearian sonnet. The juices of nightshade are, however, poisonous — disguised here by anachronistic framing, both poetic and scientific.

Eyeball (1993) is a peeled cedar stump cut off at table height. Its satin-varnish finish reinforces a connection to the domestic, placing the piece somewhere between Scandinavian modern and rustic twig furniture. The revealed sapwood rings have been hollowed-out to create a sinuous canal around the heartwood. A glass chemistry flask, half filled with water, rests within the contours of the canal. Like Gairloch Garden's meandering stream and Japanese bridge, Eyeball's moat-and-island motif posits a prim and trim natural reserve. Western art's conventionalized decorative vocabulary, whether Morris or Matisse, has used patterns of the botanical to recreate the domestic that celebrates the handmade and the natural. Walker engages a similar concern— in addition to risking a witty backslide into cottage-garden kitsch. Eyeball could be a birdbath set beside Sneezy and Dopey.

Scroll (1991) further dissolves the walls between the gallery and the garden. On a meter-long steel tube, Walker has finely etched impressions of the leaves of many of the trees and flora native to southeastern Canada: ash, oak, birch, larch, pine, cedar, Solomon's seal, wild grasses, iris… The leaves form a compendium on a giant printing roller, to be potentially reproduced without a discernible scientific, decorative or recreational directive. The natural, here as in her other works, is committed to representation's own symbiotic narratives.

C Magazine 43, Fall 1994