Caroline Walker, Joy, Hackney II, 2017. Estimate £6,000 - 8,000. Wired Online Auction.
In her quiet, luminous paintings, Caroline Walker documents and reflects on the everyday experiences of women. Walker’s relationship to her subjects may vary (sometimes they are neighbors, sometimes they work nearby), but she approaches each image with an eye to the paradoxes of personal agency that are exacerbated by race, socio-economic status, age, and the particular kind of “women’s work” at which they labor.
Joy, Hackney II is from Walker’s collaboration with the charity organization Women for Refugee Women, and it is a subtle and memory-infused painting of the first woman Walker visited for the project. As Joy, Hackney II comes up in Phillips’ Wired Online Auction, we caught up with Walker about painting the series, her current exhibition, Nearby, at GRIMM New York, and what she’s working on now.
PHILLIPS: Joy, Hackney II is from your series of female asylum seekers in London. To start, could you tell me about your experience working on the project and working with Joy?
CAROLINE WALKER: This project was the result of a collaboration with the charity Women for Refugee Women, in response to a commission from Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. When I was considering how I could approach this subject matter, I was thinking a lot about the recurring theme of the domestic and the idea of “home” that had been prevalent in the work I’d been making over the past 15 years or so. I wanted to explore this theme with a group of women in the charity’s network who might be willing to let me visit them in the accommodation they had at the time. I was really happy that 5 women were interested in working with me, and we set up some visits.
Joy was the first woman I visited and it was my morning with her that gave me confidence there was a really interesting and vital subject for painting here. Before I went, I was a little apprehensive, as I hadn’t met Joy before and also had no idea what her flat might look like, so didn’t know how I would respond visually. Previously all my work had been the result of staged photo shoots, where I was very much in control of the visuals and the suggested narrative. This project called for a completely different approach, one which was about responding to an individual woman’s circumstances, and trying to translate some of that in the way I portrayed them and their environment in the paintings. The visit with Joy, chatting over tea about her life and family, then having some fun together with the process of taking photos for the paintings while hearing about the things she enjoyed or found challenging about where she lived, was a really important moment in the development of my work as an artist. It marked a turning point in the way I research and make my paintings; one which now always takes real women’s everyday experiences as the starting point.
As a result, this series of paintings is very important to me. Joy, Hackney II is the only work from the group which has been available to non-institutional buyers and was sold in the 2018 Her Stories charity auction to raise money for Women for Refugee Women, and 2 other charities that work with vulnerable women in the UK.
P: Could you tell me a bit more about your choice of palette and technique for Joy, Hackney II, as well? The red tones are so striking! And the way you capture the room lit from within.
CW: What you see in this oil sketch is very faithful to the interior of Joy’s flat and gives a little sense of her personality and taste with the bright colors on the daybed, rug, and her shoes. Of the 5 women I painted, Joy had the most secure accommodation and as a result had been able to make the space her own, choosing the colors she likes and surrounding herself with some things that made it feel more like home.
Early on in my painting process I make oil sketches as a way of translating the imagery I’m working with from photography to a language of painting. I work very intuitively on these in terms of color palette and mark making, trying to capture something of the light and atmosphere I see captured in the photographic document of my visit, but also something less tangible to do with my memory of being in that space with that person. Some of the oil sketches are studies towards larger paintings, whereas others, like Joy, Hackney II, stay as stand-alone works.
P: The painting—and your paintings more broadly—implicate the viewer as a voyeur, observing a pensive, subtle moment of personhood. Do the implications of this feel different to you depending on who the subject is?
CW: Very much so, and I think about this a lot when I’m in the studio making the work. The women I paint have differing levels of personal agency depending on their job, class, socio-economic position, age or ethnicity, and some are rendered largely invisible in society by their circumstances. Rather than be voyeuristic or intrusive, I would like the viewpoint I present to implicate the viewer, but more as an aid to take them into the same space as the subject, and in doing so make visible those who we might overlook.
In the “Home” series, which Joy, Hackney II is part of, I felt the visual cues of the open door I/we look through were especially meaningful in acknowledging I was an outsider getting a glimpse into their lives at a particular moment. When the series was shown at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and Art Exchange, University of Essex in 2018 there were transcripts of the women talking about their lives and their feelings on the project available to read alongside the paintings. It was important that their voices were included, contextualizing how the paintings were seen.
P: How have notions of labor and domesticity shaped your work?
CW: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been fascinated by images of women and it was all I wanted to draw. The women I drew were either very glamorous, dressed in high heels and fancy clothes, or were depictions of housewives cooking and cleaning, clearly inspired by my mum. These two polarized and somewhat incompatible visions of a woman could be seen to be equally limiting, though in different ways. As an artist, those paradoxes of what it is to be a woman in society and the many roles that we are expected to occupy are the basis of all my interests as an artist. This has been the case especially in the last few years as I’ve been focusing on the subject of women’s working lives and considering the idea of “women’s work,” asking what this work is and how it is valued by society. This exploration has taken me back to thinking about the invisible and unpaid but essential work that goes on in the home; work which is still disproportionately done by women. As part of this I returned to my childhood subject to make a series of paintings of my mum cooking, cleaning and gardening at the family home.
P: Your work now has a particular resonance because of the way we have all been confined for the past year—and in the pandemic’s impact on women, especially. Have you been thinking differently about your work these past few months?
CW: I currently have a solo exhibition at GRIMM New York (Until May 1st) called Nearby, the subject of which is women in my local area in London. Some are my neighbors, and others work in the shops or businesses I regularly visit. The paintings were largely made during the latest lockdown period in England, when the shrinking of daily life was an experience shared by many. It was also an experience that renewed a greater sense of community, and made us all appreciate those working in jobs that might not previously have been considered key to our everyday comfort. I’ve been interested in painting women that do vital but undervalued work for some time, but the pandemic has meant that these subjects are now framed by this new wider recognition for those that keep us all going on a daily basis.
P: Could you tell me a bit about what you’re working on now?
CW: I have a postponed solo show, Women’s Work, opening next month at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham (UK) which brings together paintings from several series of work within this broader theme. Alongside the paintings there are audio pieces made by radio documentary maker Maria Margaronis, who interviewed some of the women I’ve painted, asking them about their personal and working lives.
I’m also about to start a residency on the maternity wing at a hospital in London, where I’ll spend some time shadowing midwives, nurses and other women working in the department. I’m very much looking forward to exploring this subject matter, as it has both personal interest (my daughter was born there in 2019) and marks a move into one of the most fundamental areas of “women’s work.”