Distillations catalogue essay by Moya Costello

Gestures[’] Tender Connection

To start, or continue:

Laughter: Always have something black in your wardrobe. The neutral and the colour-free—white, ecru, grey, black—link and equalise the corner and the spotlight. At the very least, there is a point from which to spring or remain seated. The smallest or the biggest gesture—both are possible. (Costello 1998)

Gesture implies the small that, in practice, requires significant movement and meaning.

I go to Emma’s studio in my white-framed spectacles, grey cotton jumper, white t-shirt underneath, black pants, white sneakers.

For a visual artist who foregrounds making, we could start with the Piero della Francesca’s intertextual/folding-into/unfolding/passaging-to frescoes. But we don’t have to. Because where is the beginning … exactly is there?

Photographic portraits by Lisa Sorgini of Emma Walker at work in her studio (see emwalker, Instagram) most often show Walker in blurred movement. And so it should be. Like many artists, Walker admits to being unsure of what she is doing as she starts on a project. And movement reflects Walker’s way of working, bodily, with power tools to shape and smooth, or in swa[the]ying rhythm with brush and gesso or acrylic to paint. A not-knowing keeps still the blurred momentum: the hands moving, the paint swirling, the ovular/circular making, because Walker’s way of working is processual, materials-based and intuitive. Further, ‘blurring’ is mimetic for the challenge that abstract work (in more-than minimalism and mono-colour) presents to the viewer and for the translucent quality of gauze (tulle, chiffon or organza), even for the opacity of milk – aspects of the (more or less) layered/worked gesso in the sculptural paintings, appearing like gauze and milk.

Emma has used the word minimalism in conversation with me. I like the word and practice of minimalism (brevity/shortness), and it is aligned with abstraction (Think Agnes Martin, Rothko). Walker’s works in Distillations appear minimalist, perhaps. But all minimalism requires abundance to make. And all minimalism has depth.

And what is abstraction but disturbance? The unsettling of the viewer; a request to labour/work with; the need to co-communicate across a border of languages; how viewing is painted.

And yet, everything in della Francesca is sentient.

I realise, in an epiphanic moment, when I see the white swell of waves over rock pools, and the white foam circles on a shallow rock, it is the white of Emma’s circular, thickened/thin-layered, swirled, smoothed white, white on white. Rachel Carson: ‘all my rocks crowned with foam’. A milk pool. A meniscus (in shape/function).

Emma’s greywhiteblack (+ sand/ed), ovular/elliptical shapeshifting pebblepods.

Some of the works on marine ply, or part of them, also recall moss/lichen on shoreline or forest rock. Rocks, stones, pools as a multiplicity of pod, of circle and ellipse.

Piero’s chessboard floors: situating figures in geometry.

Emma’s chessboard of drawings (varied pencils and eraser, on Stonehenge paper) are of moments, gestures, detail, from della Francesca’s frescoes. Lines conjunct/conjecture from the drawings (grey, white, black, or erasure) to the sculptural painted works (white, grey, black, what becomes of erasure): strongly connected but visually disparate parts in ligature. Her expression of the still-mobile/still-pointing is the outside-inside of the inside-outside.

An ellipse surrounds two focal points, and the sum of the two distances to the focal points is a constant. An ellipsis, the punctuation mark, is erasure and elision.

and folding

and folding-unfolding enveloping developing

and oval-egg ovular-egg-elliptic because shape is sanctuary falling into can be cocoon-enveloped often of silk inside to passage outside

and flow—across material, scale, distance and time—in constant exchange

with frescoes, the paint merging with the plaster, the paint becoming the wall with sculptured paintings, gesso and acrylic on glue-layered marine ply becoming sculpture

gestures[’] tender[ness] [is] connection

Here is the start and continuation: Emma has a structure: 30 days, 30 drawings, 30 walks, 100 verses of self-instruction.

Structure, in this (early) second decade of the 21st century, is common, given the
chaos of climate change and earthly destruction.
Numbers are used to
form structure, to
frame, to
manage content (disturbance).

Distillations and a recent exhibition, Dark Sublime (Lismore Regional Gallery 31 Aug–27 Oct 2019), are immersive. Walker’s shapes and colours are mimetic of what is in the natural world: sea, sky, cloud, shadow, cave, hole, rock/stone, step, pebble, egg, sand, shoreline, and movement: point, passage, (inter)connect, sink, stream, spread/fall/flow/fold, whorl, swirl, swathe, float.

As with the inner and outer of un/folding, Distillations, is also, but even more so, about the colour and movement of overlapping functions of human consciousness: awareness, memory, feeling, judgement, interpretation, translation, representation, serenity and anxiety in endless [inter]play. Colour and shape can render psychic states, or resonate with particular ‘qualities’. Her art does the work of/is made by ‘the opening up of material and immaterial forces of the universe to elaboration and experimentation’ (Yusoff et al).

Art, writes Elizabeth Grosz, ‘is culture’s most direct mode of enhancement or intensification of bodies, culture’s mode for the elaboration of sensations, and thus culture’s most intense debt to the chaotic forces it characterizes as nature’. Walker’s art considers ‘forces that are antecedent to sensible affiliations, from where art draws its power’, those forces perhaps being in and from nature.

Emma Walker’s art is tied ‘to the geopower of the earth’. Abstract art, wrote the Australian abstract painter Ian Fairweather, is like ‘the Buddhist idea of suspended judgement—[t]he mind is cleared of thought but not of awareness—[a]lways the purpose of art is to find its way through the forest of things to a larger unity containing all things’.

Adapted quotes from:

Rachel Carson quoted in Julia Baird Phosphorescence

Moya Costello ‘Twenty Accessories You Can’t Live Without’ W/edge

Ian Fairweather: Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters edited by Claire Roberts and John Thompson

Elizabeth Grosz Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth

Referencing Fiona Hall’s exhibition title Tender used in tender’s more-than-one meaning (noun, adjective, verb)

Instagram emwalker notes and responses to emwalker

Definitions from the Internet

Gail Jones The Death of Noah Glass

Matthew Krissel ‘Philosophy of Materials and Structures’

Emma Walker in conversation

Yusoff, K, Saldanha, A. Nash, C and Clark, N ‘Geopower: a panel on Elizabeth Grosz’s “Chaos, territory, art: Deleuze and the framing of the earth”’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2012, volume 30, pages 971–988


Emma Walker’s new collection of paintings, ‘Surface Immersion’, illuminates the creative power that dwells between contradictions and boundaries. Drawing inspiration from extensive travel and an innate desire to absorb the world around her, the artist explores connections between landscape, memory and the subconscious through texture, tactility and surface. Her works traverse worlds within and without, looking at how our innermost selves are interwoven with the vast universe.

Walker’s abstracted imagery emerges from a combination of experimentation and automaticity, each mark mingling with her memory in a fluid process of revelation and concealment. Layer upon layer of paint is applied on timber, scraped back, sanded, gouged, carved and glazed – physical processes that attempt to emulate the geological occurrences causing continents to move and shorelines to reshape, etching the faces of rocks, rivers and ravines. These various techniques create a multitude of surfaces that trick the eye. When is the line painted, and when is it carved? What is receding and what is protruding? The artist reflects, ‘My process appears to be a mirror of self and the undulating confusion of existence’. As such, the works are in a perpetual state of becoming – nascent formations that resist fixed and finite meaning.

‘Surface Immersion’ creates atmospheric spaces wherein divisions between self and other dissolve in the layering, the additions and subtractions, and the search for forms. ‘I want the paintings to be dreamy places that the eye can get lost in, for the viewer to experience a form of reverie when looking at them; to feel something’, Walker states. Alluding to the ideas of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard – who conceptualised space in terms of the ‘dialectics of outside and inside’, prompting a revision of these boundaries – the works are exercises in dissolving divisions between material and mind, surface and immersion.
From ancient escarpments etched and eroded with the lashes of time to cellular structures and root systems, the paintings move between internal and external landscapes in ways that are given form by the viewer’s imagination. Carved channels twist and turn across the board like sprawling river networks or veins circulating around the body. Shadows are cast by trails of tiny burrows as Walker plays with positive and negative space, light and dark. In some areas, bare board reveals the very first gestural marks, while others are obscured with opaque paint, each different surface acting as a site for psychological, emotional, physical and geological immersions. The boards bear the memory of the artist’s tools like former lives lived, their tactile topologies marking tangible presence and the imprint of absence.

The physicality of Walker’s making process imbues the works with a sense of struggle and resilience, and a deep sense of history. Crafted into irregular forms that defy the traditional rectangular configuration, the paintings feel organic and autonomous, sitting proudly on the wall as if floating in space. For the artist, ‘each painting has its own personality; they are a family of unruly characters with numerous common traits and resemblances. I see them as hybrid creatures, paintings that are trying to make a sculptural proposition of some sort.’ The artist carves open a space between the different identities of painting – in naturalistic terms as an illusion, and in formalist terms as a flat object. ‘The truth is, a painting has the potential to be many things: an object, an invitation, an illusion, a plane, a portal and series of questions. It may sit on a wall, but it still occupies space. It also penetrates psychological space. I wanted to indent that space and drift both towards and away from the wall as well as in and out of people’s minds, whilst also trying to understand my own’ reflects Walker. ‘This is an investigation that I am still scratching at the surface of’.


The recent body of work by Emma Walker (b. 1969) is testament to a penetrating imagination. Skilfully exhuming imagery from the memory and experience of liminal zones, Walker has confirmed her standing as an artist of scope and substance. A poetic reverie weaves its way through forms and spaces giving shape to the natural processes the artist seized upon to celebrate a deep felt awareness of the fragile world we inhabit. 

In Walker’s paintings, there is the impression of a detached, spiritual entity coming to grips with an environment of mystery and potential. To garner insight into the artist’s creative process and influences, a short excursion focusing on her formative years may be helpful.

Childhood revolved around life spent between the city and the bush. The wild bush property near Cootamundra in the NSW south-west accommodated an intensive piggery, allowing most of the land to remain in an unfettered state. The tough, dry landscape and the native wildlife would make an indelible mark on a young psyche. Fires, floods and long devastating droughts burnished the ancient land, giving rise to a place of fierce contrasts and subtle variations. This inimical terrain was the nascent artist’s nursery and provided the beginnings of a compelling visual language enabling the artist, in time, to translate her emotional response to a shared experience. Back in Sydney, young Emma’s horizons were extended by the family’s free-wheeling circle of friends that included prominent artists, poets, architects and an Indian Guru. In addition, the family went on extended overseas journeys that would spark an appetite for the exotic and unexpected. 

In 1994, as a 25 year-old graduate from the National Art School, the artist  was offered and accepted a position in the inaugural Artist in Residence Programme at the Haefliger Cottage, Hill End. Along with established artists such as Wendy Sharpe, Richard Goodwin, Peter Kingston and Tom Spence,  Walker stepped into a cultural crucible that had been famously re-discovered by Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend in 1947. The remnants of the old, isolated gold town, with its scarred red earth, scattered ruins and potent sense of time passing, were the elusive elements that fired the imagination of Drysdale and Friend, re-directing the course of landscape painting in Australia. For Walker, the residency at Hill End was an opportunity to immerse herself in an historically-charged landscape that was also a painter’s paradise. Providing a contemporary reaction to the site, select works from the Residency Programme, including Walker’s, were hung in The Artists of Hill End exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in July 1995.  

The die was cast: fast forward to the artist in mid-career, grappling with Sediment Songs. The inspiration and binding component in this impressive series is the inexorable action of natural forces on the Earth’s crust, above and below the waterline.  The ingrained memory of specific sites is tapped in the solitude of the studio. Visual equivalents are tested and either rejected or accepted. As the artist pointed out in a recent statement: ‘These paintings are not in any way planned out or prescribed.  They have grown from one action or process leading to another.  They have been plagued by uncertainty and enlivened with the delights of discovery that experimentation invariably produces. ‘ 

Time spent in desert regions along with close observation of her own environment on the coastal fringe of northern New South Wales, has triggered this imposing sequence of work. An immediate contrast is established in the rigorous excavation of these disparate regions with certain patterns or systems detected and seized upon to convey the authority of an artist in tune with nature’s interlocking processes. While immersed in the interior, Walker began to perceive a shift in time and space. This epiphany appears to have been a portal to further appreciate the deep spiritual and physical connection indigenous people have to the land. 

Water, its presence and absence, is a key ingredient constantly percolating through the artist’s imagination. Take for instance, Sea Garden III, with the languid flow of pigments; the sensuous interplay of iridescent greens and graphite grey, merging with unexpected hits of sky blue, laid against a sinuous ground etched into with a router – all combine to create a dynamic interplay of forces that harbour a place of mingling and integration - another transitional zone of dynamic vigour. 
On the other hand, Channel Country II, could be construed as a fragment of a vast desiccated landscape, somewhere in the interior, where monsoonal downpours re-direct the flow of waterways and re-shape landforms. This sense of metamorphosis is echoed in the lengthy physical process undertaken to forge these images. Like the Earth’s crust, the tough marine ply format becomes the resilient component in the realisation of the artist’s vision. 
The works in this series hold a kind of timelessness.  To the artist again,
 “These paintings have been in a perpetual state of becoming.  They seem to be more about process than completion.  This is what my eyes and mind are drawn to in the ancient landscapes of sea, rock and sky. The university of time.”

Gavin Wilson - Freelance Curator

Sebastian Smee, Art Critic, Boston Globe

"Emma Walker is one of Australia's most convincing and original painters. Her work is as audacious as it is poetic; the one quality leavens the other, so that just as delicate reverie sets in, you're pulled up by a less immediately seductive note, an act of painterly boldness or some other form of tough, enlivening aesthetic decision… these are intelligent paintings - intelligent in their understanding of ambiguities, of space, and of colour."


"The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the things it loves."
Carl Jung

As a child, at bed time, whilst waiting for sleep to descend, I would entertain myself by watching my thoughts. I would make a note of the starting point then (try to) relax and let my mind wander. After some minutes of this, I would pull the brakes on my train of thought and then work my way backwards to the point of origin. The intention was to figure out how I started with one thought and ended up somewhere else entirely in the space of a few minutes. It was like a contrary form of meditation. Rather than stilling the mind and focussing on the breath, I would instead focus on my thoughts and completely ignore my breathing. Sometimes I would also just see and feel patterns. It is a sensation difficult to describe, a strange confluence of seeing, thinking and feeling. I remember a kind of shaking sensation that was accompanied by a visual of fine, black scribble. Another version was a soft, dense, white, rubbery feeling - like biting into an eraser. At other times I would play a game that involved visualising the colours of numbers and letters.
I have always loved the associational journeys that the brain makes. 
I have always loved thinking about thinking.

The processes of making these paintings in a sense mirrored the circuitous routes of my thought pathways and an ever changing emotional landscape. They underwent numerous transformations over a period of some months. Compositions would continually shift, colours would be re-mixed and re-applied until they were exactly the right hue. It was at times a difficult process with no certain outcome. Many of them were initially quite complex, a layered grid of gestural and painterly marks. Gradually these earlier layers would be covered with flat paint and the introduction of more distinct forms and geometric patterns. Seemingly random and indecisive, these actions of layering paint, of revealing and obscuring, echoed a voyage of ideas, memories and dreams.
In a sense these paintings are cerebral self portraits or snap shots of my mind in action. They are about thought processes, decision making, questioning, remembering, day dreaming, freedom, boundaries and the linkage of ideas and sensation. They are about how an idea can form from something that may initially be indistinct and end up as something concrete, how the organic forms of dreaming and reverie relate to the more structured trajectories of rational thought.
The language of abstraction and the use of geometric pattern alongside organic forms have helped me to visually depict these somewhat nebulous processes of the mind.


Creating rich, semi abstracted images, driven by a rigorous practice of observation and complex mark‐making, Emma Walker has been ardently recording her experience of nature over the course of her career. From the cellular to the panoramic, organic forms have endured throughout, and reflect the artist’s deep felt need to connect with the landscape on both a physical and emotional level.
Pollination continues her ongoing fascination with natural systems. Inspired by the productive quality of the bee colony, these new works present a dualistic vision of nature as a site of external resilience and internal nurturing. Working in both painting and paper assemblage, Walker employs the motif of the hexagonal cell – a form found both within the bee’s eye and within the structure of the hive – along with swift, gestural line‐work to capture something of the ceaseless generative activity of the bee. Observing their flight, navigation, proclivity to build and instinct to nurture, the artist notes that “the complex working of a bee colony feels like a microcosm that mirrors the busy pursuits and endeavours of humanity.”
This sense of ‘busy pursuit’ is achieved through the physical pulse of Walker’s painting gestures. Revealed within her sweeping brush strokes and dense textures, her tension between form and erasure, is a spontaneity and fluidity of image making that spills over from the representational into the abstracted. Elements of landscape – flower, branches and hive painted in both textured and flat surfaces – help construct a series of compositions that relentlessly fill the picture plane, almost to its limits.
Intuitively responding to these systems of organised chaos her work depicts an animated terrain, caught midpoint between instinctual action and poetic lucidity. Colours of sunlight and shade, formed into hexagonal cells of cool blues and warm ambers, operate beside one another to produce an effect of simultaneously looking outside at the world and inward to the safety of the dark hive. A similar imperative to fuse sensory experiences is evident within her assemblages. Furls of leaf form and hexagonal sequences coalesce within the pages of old family books to induce an almost kaleidoscopic ‘whole of life’ perspective.
These are, in a sense, true primavera paintings, although Walker has inverted the typical allegory of a tamed and plentiful Nature, replacing it with a vast and infinite space in which “all things are completely part of a limitless intrinsic whole. The grids, the honeycomb, the patchwork for me are symbolic of this.” Walker is ultimately pointing toward a universal awareness, to a deep‐seated and intuitive desire to exist. By negotiating the representation of both tangible and metaphysical spaces, Walker’s complex images finally hover somewhere in‐ between the human and natural world, to reveal an expression of pure, fleeting experience.


With these new paintings and works on paper, Emma Walker has said goodbye to the “emerging” label that some artists seem to carry for their entire lives. This does not mean she has ceased experimenting and searching, but there is sense of maturity - a centredness - in this work that reveals a confident creative personality.
The catalyst for these paintings, which are basically landscapes with a strong abstract component, was a journey to Central Australia. In responding to that arid, primeval environment, Walker follows in the footsteps of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and John Olsen, who did some of their most original work under its influence. There the resemblance ends, because Walker’s pictures are characterized by nuances and fine details, not grand, sweeping statements. Some would call this a feminine approach, but I think it is more a matter of temperament than gender.
The variety of colour and texture in these pictures is seductive, but there is an underlying concern for structure that means they never subside into simple decoration. Although landscape elements are dominant there are allusions to many different schools of modern abstract painting. It is the mark of a mature artist that Walker is clearly in control of these influences, taking only what is necessary to forge a distinctive visual language of her own.

John McDonald

Art critic, The Sydney Morning Herald