The 'Bread and Butter' Paintings of Conor Walton
Walton is a painter with expansive ideas who is both intellectually
and technically equipped to make grand scale paintings tackling social,
political and philosophical themes. Yet some of his most riveting
works are deceptively simple, modest compositions featuring bread
domestic still-lifes have a hauntingly mesmerizing quality about them.
They recall the window sill still-lifes of Francisco de Zurbarán
and convey an almost Franciscan humility that imbues their subjects
with a devotional character. They are not flashy, they do not call
attention to themselves or come off as overtly didactic. Yet the paintings
invite a meditative consideration in which they reveal their mysterious
implications through a masterful attention to detail and seductive
virtuosity in their handling of paint.
is the staff of life and the artist’s treatment of this subject
somewhat unavoidably carries a Eucharistic semiotic. Yet these paintings
aren't necessarily overtly religious in a literal or dogmatic sense.
Their experience is as much a Zen sensation as a Christian one.
details of the surfaces of the artisanal bread have an almost geologic
feel as each crackle and flake is meticulously rendered in obsessive
observation of the chaos by which those events occur at a molecular
level. The surface is a record of a natural process as the yeast bearing
bread is literally alive and responds to the kinetics of the baking
and cooling to yield this organic event. The artist’s process
is one of discovery, of phenomenology, of contemplation.
are undeniably studies yet they are not somehow less complete, less
sufficient or any less satisfying than the artist’s more grandiose
compositions. Whether a loaf of bread, a half-wrapped stick of butter
or a bunch of grapes, the depiction holds the viewer's attention and,
though forthright in its subject matter, it implies a greater semiotic
that is nuanced and ceremonial.
artist has some ambivalence about painting still-lifes and the process
did not come easy to him. He wanted to paint people, big themes and
subjects … to be a history painter. Indeed, he has made some
important achievements in that arena. Yet first, he needed to train
as an observational painter. Making 'bread and butter' paintings is
analogous to playing scales and, as any great musician will testify,
mastering those scales is a lifelong pursuit.
still-life has been dominated by two approaches: either the tasteful,
beautiful simplicity of the subject, transcendent of materialism,
or as a vanitas imbued with a morbid guilt about materialism. Both
emerged in the early Modern period in response to the ascendant materialist
culture of the West. Walton readily admits to some degree of vacillation
between the two approaches, and often enjoys constructing complex
allegories and giving his "lurid instincts" free reign when
pursuing the vanitas mode. For the artist, however, the allegorical
nature of traditional vanitas paintings is paradoxically a type of
Walton says that he feels somewhat disconcerted at how tasteful the
'bread and butter' paintings look. There is an almost monkish sensualism
about these paintings, at once critical and perversely celebratory
of their materiality. In one sense, they represent virtually pure
analysis, but in another, they are charged with an enigmatic nuance
and the inference of morality. Walton has an affinity for deep content
and managed to find a way of importing an implied narrative into the
work without being too literal or overtly allegorical. By contrast,
he constructs a notion of pure still-life. Yet these unobtrusive paintings
seem to have an alchemical feel to them as if they were efforts to
turn a humble original substance into aesthetic gold.
the artist, the paintings have become a discipline, not just in technical
mastery, but in meditation and observation. For Walton, they are as
much about their process as the beauty of their outcomes. While the
artist never intended to spend so much time making such precious little
paintings, he has come to terms with the essence of still-life and
says he just wants to get better at them. But I suspect that, like
the paintings themselves, there is more embedded in that aspiration
than first meets the eye. It is not only technical mastery at stake
but a deeper self actualization that comes from the process of careful
Bravo is from San Antonio, Texas. As an art historian, museum director,
curator and writer he has devoted his life and career to education
and the interdisciplinary study of art and curation.