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Easy on the eyes

With paint, Sarah Walker depicts her mind at work

NEW YORK -- When painter Sarah Walker was a girl, her father watched her with the eye of a scientist. He was a neurological researcher training as a child psychiatrist. He'd take his daughter to the lab with him or keep tabs as she played outdoors, collecting bugs and rocks.

''For him, it was about witnessing my perceptual processes," Walker explains. She's sitting barefoot on a low stool in an airy but small live/work space where she has spent the past few months preparing for her solo museum show, opening April 27, at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

Walker inherited her father's penchant for analysis and his curiosity about perception. She builds her paintings on them. Vibrantly colored and densely networked abstractions, they threaten to both pop off the wall and suck you in. They are, she says, intricate portrayals of her own mind and the way she organizes what's in it.

''My own neurology is about a pileup of information," Walker observes, looking at paintings arrayed on her floor and wall. ''I built these rubble piles that organize into city grids and rock formations. It's a geology of accretion, like coral reefs."

They also reference other virtual spaces.

''She uses diagrams, patterns, topographical images, and images scientists use to depict the visual state of the mind, or the Internet," says Rose curator Raphaela Platow, who is organizing the show. ''She layers them to create interwoven images of different types of reality -- space, sprawl, the movement of information. It's something we're all concerned with."

Recent months have been frenetic for Walker. In addition to revving up for the Rose exhibit, Walker has mounted shows at her galleries in San Francisco and New York and is gearing up for another one at the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston in May. She moved, at least temporarily, from her Boston digs to Brooklyn to live with her partner, artist Andrew Ginzel, while she's on leave from her job teaching at Clark University in Worcester.

In the midst of it all, on March 2, the artist, 42, had a baby boy, Walker Forest Ginzel, delivered by C-section after 36 hours of labor.

She was back up and working as soon as possible, with her newborn at her side. For a woman who just gave birth and had abdominal surgery, Walker looks great: slender, at ease, surprisingly focused.

''I now have chunks of time that are much smaller [to work in]," she says. ''I can totally overthink things, but now there's less reflective time and more spontaneous 'just doing' time."

Painting continues to be a tool for observing her own thought processes. She points to ''Dust Tail II," a large electric blue piece through which layers and layers of color glint, with pinpoint lights sparkling over the surface.

''That's a star field, made by dropping paint on the paper," she explains. ''Each drop I fill with a contrasting point of color, as if to make each point conscious. There's chaos, but it becomes organized by the consciousness I bring to it. It looks organic, but it's more a choreography between randomness and consciousness."

''The way she applies pigment to paper is beautiful," says Platow. ''The water seeps into the paper. And I love the way she allows change to guide her."

Her ''rubble piles" of color also relate to the artist's childhood. Walker's parents divorced when she was small. Her father remarried when she was 8, and Walker quickly took to her new stepmother.

''She was extraordinarily bright. She had a mind like a detective. And she had a compulsion to save everything -- everything! -- in a very large house," the artist recounts.

In contrast, Walker's mother ''threw away anything that reminded her of the past," Walker says, including the rock collection her daughter kept under her bed in their California home.

The artist summered with her father and stepmother in the Midwest. ''It represented freedom," she remembers. ''I could leave stuff, and I'd come back the next summer and it would still be there, in the same place, under a few layers. I could see all the lived experience of my family over that [intervening] year. It would all be there."

Her stepmother's hoarding had its downside. ''It would reach a tipping point and give rise to wacky new organizational strategies," Walker says. ''She'd take neighbors to court on small infractions in their yard. It would scare them enough to not report the obvious health and safety violations at her house."

Walker remembers her stepmother, who wasn't married to her father for long, with sympathy. The piles of objects in her home ''were her prosthetic memory," Walker observes. ''To get rid of any object would be to get rid of a part of her mind."

She relates to that desire to hang on.

''When I went to art school, the teachers said, 'If you love part of a painting, that's what you're attached to, so get rid of it.' I wanted to know what would happen if I did save everything," she says. ''What if I could create a system where everything in a painting would remain visible?"

She has. Over the years, her paintings have unveiled increasingly lively and complex networks of virtual space -- the space of the mind. But the latest turn of events in her life is more than just another thing to think about. It's a squirmy, pink-faced tiny boy with a shock of fine brown hair that stands straight up on his head. Little Walker, it seems, defies analysis and compels his mom to be in one place at one time.

''I didn't think I'd ever have a child," she reflects. ''But I entered into this relationship [with Ginzel], and the timing was very good. It became a big surprise to me that it was so powerfully desired."

Walker, who never baby-sat, who never played with dolls except to build environments around them, has jumped right in.

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