Boston painter Sarah Walker, 42, will receive this year's Rappaport Prize, the largest annual award given by a public institution to an individual artist in Massachusetts.
Funded by the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Charitable Foundation and administered by the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, the $20,000 prize recognizes an artist's achievement and creative potential.
''Sarah Walker is part of a small new generation of artists who are reinventing the language of abstract painting for the 21st century," DeCordova curator Nick Capasso said by phone yesterday. ''The language she is creating is germane to 21st-century concerns: computer technology and screens, information retrieval systems, the new physics, cosmology, and neuroscience. The other thing in Sarah's work that sets it apart is the sheer complexity of the imagery."
Working in acrylic on paper, Walker creates strikingly intricate, vibrant patterns that evoke anything from neurons to computer-generated graphics to whirling nebulae. Images are viewable online at www.sarahwalker.org.
''She's a painter who is not afraid of color," Capasso said, laughing at the understatement. ''It's not just the saturation of color, but the number of colors and the complexity of the color combinations. And she's not afraid of beauty, either."
Walker said her work grew in part out of her childhood as the daughter of a neurologist who later became a psychiatrist. ''Spaces of the mind were always forefront in the family conversation," she said by phone yesterday. In her paintings she tries to merge these interior worlds with the exterior world ''in such a way that the viewer can inhabit them not sequentially but all at the same time," she said.
Walker, who received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BFA from the California College of the Arts in Oakland, lives and works in Boston. She chairs the department of visual and performing arts at Clark University in Worcester.
She has had solo and group shows at many galleries, including Pierogi, Dorsky Gallery, and the National Academy of Design in New York, and she has received residencies and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the American Academy in Rome, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other institutions.
There is no formal application process for the Rappaport Prize; the DeCordova's director and curatorial staff make the selection. Capasso said one criterion this year was that the artist work in two dimensions, as several previous recipients made objects, not paintings, and ''it was starting to look like a sculpture prize, which it's not."
The only condition of acceptance is that the DeCordova receive a work of art by the recipient. Previous recipients are new-media artist Jennifer Hall in 2000, installation artist Annee Spileos Scott in 2001, sculptor and photographer Lars-Erik Fisk in 2002, sculptor and installation artist John Bisbee in 2003, and printmaker Debra Olin last year.
As for what she'll do with the money, Walker said there are ''so many options": taking extended research trips, creating some very large-scale works, or perhaps handling such mundane but essential details as having professional slides made of her work or updating her website.
''I have not really settled what to do with it," she said. ''But it's totally exciting."