Primarily known for her large-scale paintings of women going about their daily lives, Scottish painter Caroline Walker is an artist of increasing visibility and near universal acclaim. Expressing any doubts will require very clear and definite critical comparisons.
Windows, Walker’s first solo museum survey, lists three of her thematic strands to date: women’s work (or ‘hidden labour’), voyeurism, and the titular windows. Critical commentary on the paintings finds it easy to talk around all of these (with references to the male gaze, cinematography, and the ‘Hopperesque’ not far behind). Less so how the work might actually articulate, stretch or re-frame these well-worn notions. Unfortunately, with affluent homes painted identically to beauty salons painted identically to refugee accommodation, they tend to homogenise the world, the experience of women in the world. The subjects change but the form remains the same from picture to picture, series to series. Rather than pliable, physically immediate and various, these women’s lives come across as remote, static and monotonous. Ditto the art form.
Compare Walker’s windows to those of Lois Dodd. In painting after painting, Dodd’s subtle shifts in shape and form lead to totally different associations, suggesting totally different (but reconcilable) attitudes to the home/outside world. Even something as simple as a window latch becomes an evolving visual idea across several pictures. In ‘Window Crosspiece’ (2014) it looks like a tank across the road, guarding the property or ready to invade. In ‘Porch Roof Snow Pile’ (2014) it looks like a sleeping baby or a cocooned bug. In ‘Snow Tree Window’ (2014) it sits in the bottom corner like a bulbous, unreadable and underlined signature: the latch/signature being a kind of ‘handle’, a device to unlock or give access to the private world of the artist, or to point to that privacy, to painting’s relative ‘transparency’.
Privacy, access, transparency—all notions which Walker’s windows are said to explore—but their rote play with reflections, frames and borders rarely feels like it adds up to anything. The abstraction refuses to combust with the subject. Form and image remain defused. In ‘Cutting’ (2019), a painting of a Saville Row tailor, an absorbingly painted section of dappled glass simply sits to one side of the picture (without being pointedly ‘cut-off’ enough to suggest a fabric/pattern swatch, say)—one isolated element among many. There’s often just too much going on compositionally for visual ideas to be developed.
There are exceptions. ‘Laundry Sorting, Morning, December’ (2021) stands out with a genuine painterly ambiguity over specifics of inside/outside, morning/night-time, strangeness/familiarity. A window reflects a house across the street, placing sandcastle battlements on a room lit by a tiffany-lamp sunrise. A mauve-grey sky is pulled down like a blind; two (real? painted?) dogs watch over a little dog ornament. The sequence of indents on the opposite roof, like the bumps on a wind-up music box, function almost as the picture’s ‘punch-card’. The painting alludes to domesticity and routine, entrapment and guardedness–but also the slightly slippery reality of shortened winter days tumbling into one another, too much time stuck indoors. It’s a shame this picture gets a bit lost in the repetitive hang. And yes, the selection is a big part of the problem here. Walker’s stronger shows tend to focus on a single thematic ‘strand’—her mother, refugees, the service industry, etc.—more clearly displaying a sense of theme and variation within the one subject (the pictures of her mother, Janet, doing household tasks become particularly enigmatic and interesting en masse). Mixing them up actually makes them seem more samey, brings out their common limitations.
Perhaps most problematic are Walker’s figures, painted identically to everything else in the picture, merged with the backdrop. But not incisively, emotively so, as they might be in a Gwen John; the women in John’s portraits are pressed into the surface, part of the room they inhabit, their clasped hands a metonym for how they occupy space, mentally and physically. Each of Walker’s figures just happens to be executed with the same assured but programmatic handling. Again, there’s nothing but the gallery text to differentiate a woman in refugee accommodation (‘Joy, 10.30am, Hackney’, 2019) from a woman in a hotel room, nothing in the painting to differentiate her from the artist’s mother tidying the things in a far less modest townhouse (surely each woman has formed a very different relationship with her surroundings, has a very different sense of residential stability/attachment?). We might also compare the women at work—the cleaners, the hairdressers, the bakers, the tailors—to older forebears. Degas’ laundresses, or ironing women, perhaps: the powdery paint conveying steamy humidity in ‘The Laundresses’ (1884), the woman’s provisional hand in ‘Women Ironing’ (1869) morphing into the iron and given extra ‘arms’ where Degas has changed their position but decided to retain the outlines, looking to all intents and purposes as if her repetitive activity has burned a residual ghost image onto the canvas. The form articulates the women’s labour: the state of being (and being in work) which Walker’s pictures are said to explore, but which they mostly only depict. (Walker’s workplaces are closer to the all-male environment of Degas’ 1873 painting ‘A Cotton Office in New Orleans’—the composition busier, the attitude more aloof, more physically remote).
Based closely on photographs, genuine physical-formal engagement with the subject is mostly absent. Instead, they take on a very 21st century sheen, the paint most active in dealing with the reflective surfaces of salons, floor tiles, deli counters, LEDs. There’s perhaps a certain antithesis between the physical demands of work and the slippery insubstantiality of the workplace in zero-hours contract 2021; perhaps even a certain idea of cold painterly ‘professionalism’. But it’s hard to make a case for this when it’s exactly the same approach across all the subjects and settings. There’s a socio-ethical implication (of sorts) to their neutrality, the figures neither ‘empowered’ nor ‘critiqued’. Which is fine, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with middle-class ‘niceness’ in painting. But the refusal to even implicitly ‘say’ anything about these very different women’s lives runs the risk of inconsequentiality. It’s hard to determine whether their blank objectivity really offers much of an alternative perspective to the male gaze they’re said to re-address; whether giving ‘visibility’ to under-acknowledged or under-represented roles, activities and professions is enough in itself. I’m not sure what they actually articulate about these women’s lived experiences, other than the feeling of the days—like the pictures—blurring into one another.
Jamie Limond is an artist and writer working between Glasgow and Amsterdam.
Caroline Walker: Windows runs at KM21, The Hague, 28 August to 28 November 2021