Over six decades John Loker has sealed a reputation for being one of Britain’s most accomplished yet category-defying artists. His work can be found in prestigious galleries and collections worldwide including, at home, the Arts Council, the Tate, the Royal College of Art and the V & A.
Yorkshire-born, he studied at Bradford School of Art and Design in the 1950s along with the likes of David Hockney, Norman Stevens and David Oxtoby. He moved to London to study painting at the Royal College of Art in 1960 and remained in the capital more or less continually until a recent move to Norfolk. I had the great pleasure of accompanying John as we toured this retrospective exhibition of his work over 60 years, at the Flowers Gallery which has represented him for nearly all of that time.
John Loker’s first obsession concerned horizons, centring around perceptions of space which he compressed both into minimalist form and into the narrowest of panoramic apertures.
Back in the ’70s, he made long, fibreglass sculptures and, as they became impractical, he turned to photographing and then painting horizons. Why the fascination with horizons? “It’s the point where the vision disappears over the edge of the earth as it were. It’s full of things yet it’s so simple. And it can come and it can go almost like it’s elusive. It almost fixes me in space.”
Later in the decade, Loker began formalising horizons within landscapes. In a series called Extracts, he extracted elements that might have been pill-boxes, rocks or whatever and placed them meticulously in grid patterns in order to change the perspective and create the sense of moving down. “It was like playing with landscape while at the same time playing with painting and perspective.” After doing about ten of these on this principle, he decided to add a bit of colour, as with Extracts Orange above. “I thought this is getting too dull for me…it’s like bringing in summer, like the landscape shifts.”
Loker began developing his own language with recurring motifs that included ugly forms such as traps, whirlpools, stepping-stones and cauldrons. It was a reflection of the uncertainty of global politics in the late 1980s. One motif in particular, the nose cone, began to predominate. Someone gave him what they said was the nose cone of some sort of missile. “It struck me looking at it that it was like a kid’s whip ’n top toy so I started a series Dangerous Games which we were playing at that time worldwide.
The idea is exemplified in the picture above which both references the global and the personal. “I titled that one Group Therapy because the way the cones were all spinning it was like people bouncing off each other and the impossibility of getting anywhere in group therapy because everybody is spinning in their own world.”
The spinning top/nose cone idea he later developed into a series of Cathedral paintings in which the motif becomes a gothic arch, as seen in the top picture. This Safety Zone series refers to the way we develop our own protective zone without acknowledging what lies beyond it.
In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Loker was in Europe when he noticed a succession of cars crossing the border from Austria into Hungary with large boxes on their roof-racks. It transpired that these contained white goods like fridges, washing machines etc. It was a kind of racket that by buying as personal items, people could avoid tariffs and then sell them on. The box became another recurring motif that represented the idea of the barrier. “I loved this idea of crossing boundaries that went beyond the literal.”
Soon, those boundaries began coming both ways to form a cross. In Crossover (Sensitive Parts), above, the blocks have become translucent and airy, while the colours he has rendered more vivid. We see also three shapes around the cross that developed from the shape of pylons, a symbol of communication. They take on the form of space capsules, Loker being well-versed in the depictions of space from boy’s comics to science fiction. Nose cones to space capsules, you see the continuum.
And it was space that inspired the Desert Debris paintings that he made after the discovery of fallen space rocket stages in the Australian outback. Then the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 as it was re-entering the earth’s atmosphere killing its seven crew members, sparked a succession of works. Some were explicit with the obvious shape of a capsule. Others were more symbolic.
The picture above shows the familiar boxes floating in space, banished for eternity. The red vertical line indicates perhaps the trauma and the wavy mesh-like effect has become a new and ingenious method, hand-drawn over a template, to represent the world beyond the horizon. Yes, it’s that horizon again. It’s a beautiful painting and for me, holds a certain tension between peace and trauma, noise and silence.
“It goes back to that idea that somebody can get so close to becoming a hero and phut. It’s kind of about impermanence and in order to get that sense of what infinity is, which is an impossible thing to paint, I began to use that line and I discovered that if I moved it I could make it shift and change and I could make a whole surface wave and I began to use that as part of my painting armoury.”
Going over six decades of work in a variety of styles and media, I wondered how this trip down memory lane made John Loker feel. “Frustrated”, was his answer. “Because I’d quite like to start from some mid-point because I’m 80 so I’d like to see how far I could take that in another 60 years but I’m not going to be able to do that.”
John Loker; Six Decades is showing at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP until 27 October 2018
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery