Caroline Walker is a London-based British artist who has enjoyed international success, with solo and group shows in Europe, South East Asia and North America. Hailing from Dunfermline, on the east coast of Scotland, studying at Glasgow School of Art, and then at the Royal College, Walker chiefly explores the female figure in the interior. In doing this she revisits an established art historical motif, simultaneously raising contemporary issues about the role of women in domestic spaces, and about the challenges of ‘looking good’ in a media-saturated society that worships the image.
Walker’s work has a seductive quality to it: the richly coloured surfaces are deliquescent, and enticing, prompting the viewer to exit their own time-world and escape into the fictional space of the painting. The scenes, whilst based on real places, evoke a vivid sense of the imaginary. But there is something disquieting about the scenes that we view: they have a sense of foreboding, a surface tranquility that seems irrational given the innocuous nature of the scenes. This premonitory uneasiness doesn’t leave us.
Curious to find out more about Walker’s work Dr Rina Arya, Reader in Visual Communication at the University of Wolverhampton, interviewed her to find out about her working practices, inspirations and plans for the future, finding that the artist puts herself in different spaces, and sets herself new challenges in order to enable her creativity to evolve.
RA: Can you tell me about some of your recent exhibitions?
CW: My most recent solo show ‘Bathhouse’ in Korea last autumn, was the culmination of a year’s work, which started with a month-long residency in Budapest in 2014. The residency marked two departures – one from my primary subject, the woman in the domestic space, and another in terms of process. Prior to this I had been working from the results of controlled photoshoots at houses with people who were clothed and directed by me. Here I was surreptitiously taking photos on my phone of people in public baths; I had much less control. This left a lot of room for me to explore the idea of the bathhouse as a fantasy space, in some cases completely inventing the scenes I painted.
Other recent exhibitions have included themed group shows about the nude at S2 in London, and non-perspectival space in painting at Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam. Both of these have given me an opportunity to return to a more controlled or filmic sense of constructing images.
RA: Your work has a cinematic quality about it. Can you talk a little about your influences? How have your influences changed over the years?
CW: The cinematic is a big influence on my work, both in terms of the visual devices of framing and constructing images but also the way in which narrative is constructed through the relationship of subject and viewer. Certain filmmakers have been influential including Hitchcock and Lynch. Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Great Beauty’ is a recent favourite. I found it both a visually beautiful, and very painterly portrait of Rome while simultaneously seeming to offer a social commentary on its contemporary culture.
The biggest influence for me has been images of women within Western painting history but my range has opened up lately to reality TV, trashy magazines and popular culture, which present different ways of imaging women, often where women are choosing to present themselves in particular ways. I think whether its art historical references, cinema, or even contemporary mass media, the things that influence me most have the balance of being both visually seductive and telling us something about the culture in which they’re made.
RA: That leads me to ask about what we could describe as your central subject; many of your paintings feature women within interior spaces. Even when the women are located outside the house, there is still some sort of attachment to the domestic. Can you talk about your preoccupation with the woman in the domestic interior?
CW: I’ve always been fascinated by images of women and houses, and as a child it was all I wanted to draw. This may have stemmed in part from my home life, with the central figure of my mother as the housewife but I think the paintings I saw in galleries played a part too. I remember going to the National Gallery in Edinburgh where I came across so many paintings that interested me; Gainsborough’s portraits of society women were particular favourites.
It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I became aware that so many of these paintings that I loved were painted by men: I was almost always looking at a male representation of the female realm. I wanted my paintings to both draw on this history and play around with those archetypal representations of women from a female perspective.
I often depict women in luxurious houses because of the different roles they can occupy within these kinds of homes. She could be the owner, the nanny or the housekeeper for example. The house becomes less about a private space and more about divisions of social class, wealth and the roles that we perform there. All the environments I paint – the poolside, the spa, the bedroom – are spaces that dictate the kind of behaviour we see.
I’m interested in the relationship between the real and the imaginary particularly with the performative aspect of the work. At the beginning of a photoshoot the women are always very aware of themselves being looked at; they watch each other and are keen to control how I look at them. So, in a way, they are performing a version of themselves. The real interaction, which is what I hope to catch, only really starts when they stop being aware of my presence .
RA: Following on from your interest in representing the female form there is a notable lack of male figures in your painting and I wondered whether this is intentional and/or significant?
CW: I occasionally include a male figure, like in my recent ‘Bathhouse’ show but the male is presented as ancillary, as a foil to the female. I am much more drawn to the female figure. I have a conceptual interest in engaging with the male-authored history of female representation, and being a woman, am more concerned with the female realm of experience.
RA: There seem to be links between particular paintings. Do you conceive of your paintings as single paintings that happen to share resemblances with other paintings or are they grouped into series?
CW: I never think of paintings singularly but rather in series, considering how we move from one scene to another, or from one character to another, with a narrative or thematic thread running through.
Over the last 10 years, my work has moved through different phases, where I have picked apart the different elements of my process and subject matter: who is the person I paint; where is the location; what about colour and lighting. I’m now in a phase where I think all these elements are being brought together.
RA: Can you tell me more a bit about your current work and future plans?
CW: I’m currently working with material from a research trip I made to California last summer. As well as collecting imagery in an ad hoc way (similar to the ‘Bathhouse’ series), I made a return to a more formal process, organising a photoshoot at a house in Palm Springs. It doesn’t matter whether the scenes look specifically Californian; it’s more that this sense of artifice, so synonymous with LA, has been a jumping off point for my continued interest in the relationship between performed identity and constructed environments.
I’ve also recently become interested in looking at beauty spas and nail salons; commercial spaces that are designed and marketed for women, and think that this theme would work for my solo show next January in Korea.
In September 2016, Caroline Walker will have a solo exhibition at Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam and at the Marlborough Gallery in London. In 2010 the artist was the recipient of the Valerie Beston Artist Trust Prize, and the Marlborough Gallery’s 10th anniversary exhibition will bring together recent winners.
In 2017 Walker has solo exhibitions in Korea (January), Milan (April) and a group show in Taiwan (February). In February 2017 she will also be part of a group show of women artists at the Fine Art Society in London.