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Oceania - My Dilemma



John Graham Walker

England, United States of America

23 Nov 1939 -


Coming from an artistic trajectory which included abstraction and monochromes, British painter John Walker moved into large-scale gestural paintings that later included panoramic landscapes. Walker is highly influenced by his physical surroundings, with each phase of his working method identifiably connected with his location. His series of ‘Oceania’ works were influenced by his time living in Melbourne, where he was artist-in-residence at Prahran College and dean of the Victorian College of the Arts. His most recent work is of the Maine coastline, an area in close proximity to his current residency in Massachusetts.

‘Oceania – my dilemma’ is part a series in a triptych formation that uses motifs found in his earlier works, such as ‘Labyrinth III’ 1979–80 in the Tate collection and ‘Form and Sepik mask’ 1984. These motifs refer to his study of figures in the works of Goya (the Duchess of Alba) and Velásquez (the infanta).1 The monolith motif in ‘Oceania – my dilemma’ has been interpreted as the Duchess of Alba from Goya’s portrait of 1797, painted in the year after the death of her husband. Goya’s duchess is attired in mourning black and wears two rings (one inscribed ‘Alba’, the other ‘Goya’). Her forefinger points to the earth, on which is written in script, ‘solo Goya’ indicating the intimacy of their relationship. In Walker’s ‘Oceania – my dilemma’, the quotation of St John on the left panel, ‘In truth in very truth, I tell you I am the door’, echoes both Goya’s script and the spiritual transcendence of departing life and entering death. The repetition of the Alba form – which can be interpreted as male or female, saint or saviour, living human, tombstone or a cenotaph commemorating death2 – over the three sections of the work, reflects the theatricality of a three-act drama. It forms a discontinuous dialogue rather than a narrative, showing windows into the action much like Bacon’s triptych of the death of George Dyer in 1973.

The complexity of imagery in ‘Oceania – my dilemma’ reflects Walker’s experience in Australia in acknowledging the legacy of European contact with Indigenous people and the landscape. The incorporation of elements from Oceanic and Aboriginal art such as barks, masks and spirit figures, together with the Alba figure, the skulls and biblical references clash and collide in a difficult dialogue as if all history had been sent through St John’s door only to come out the other end as a confusion of time, spirituality and imagery.

1. Infanta Margarita, the daughter of the Spanish king
2. Paul Brach, ‘John Walker’s multivalent monolith’, 'Art in America', summer 1983, p 137

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006




Media category


Materials used

triptych: oil on canvas


217.0 x 513.0 x 4.3 cm overall :

Each part, 217 x 171 x 4.3 cm, stretcher

Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.


Purchased 1983


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

John Graham Walker

Works in the collection


Shown in 3 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 8 publications


Art Gallery of New South Wales, Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Sydney, 1986, (illus.). 134

Anthony Bond, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Contemporary', pg. 94-108, Sydney, 1988, 106 (illus.), 107.

Donna Brett, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Expression and the figure', pg.108-153, Sydney, 2006, 152-153 (colour illus.). illustration on pg.153 is a detail

Edmund Capon AM, OBE and Jan Meek (Editors), Portrait of a Gallery, 'Contemporary Art', pg. 61-69, Sydney, 1984, 62 (colour illus.).

Renée Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue of British paintings, Sydney, 1987, 204 (illus.).

Tony Godfrey, The British show, 'John Walker', pg.109-112, Sydney, 1985, 109 (colour illus.).

Anne Kirker and Peter Tomory, British painting 1800–1990 in Australian and New Zealand public collections, Sydney, 1997, 172. 2209

Bernice Murphy, Australian Perspecta 1983, Sydney, 1983, 99 (illus.).