In occasion of the group exhibition The World’s Your Oyster featuring her work, we caught up with Caroline Walker to discuss depictions of femininity and the politics of seeing in her paintings, to gain a deeper insight into her practice.
Alisei Apollonio: Most of your earlier works are set in ‘picture-perfect’ domestic interiors. The body of work in The World’s Your Oyster, however, takes as its setting a hotel, from the perspective of the female cleaning staff. This complicates further the viewer’s perception of these ‘borrowed’, ‘temporary’ homes (the hotel room), exposing the cleaning process, which is usually conducted ‘behind the scenes’ while the guest is away. How did you become interested in this kind of location, how did the passage from private to temporarily rented privacy happen?
Caroline Walker: For many years all my paintings were set in private houses, but I always regarded these spaces as ‘sets’ on which a narrative that I generated was unfolding. They were hired or borrowed locations that I would visit for just 1 day, so in some respects they were always temporary, both for me and the models I brought in to populate them. They were also houses that blurred inside and outside, public and private through large plate glass windows and open plan spaces, so that the resulting voyeuristic paintings tested the notion of domestic privacy. The route to hotels as subject matter hasn’t been directly from private housing but rather via a broadening of my subject matter in to commercial and public spaces in the city and in the roles that women occupy within those. The transient space of the hotel combines my interest in homes as ‘set’ through the staged domesticity on display in the endlessly repeated identical rooms and the narrative possibilities of the varying people that occupy these pockets of supposed privacy.
Crucially, the scenes depicted in these paintings were not staged, as was the case for most of your previous work from other series. What prompted the transition from a scripted choreography to a rather documentary kind of approach?
This has happened gradually in my work. Starting with a series of paintings about Budapest bathhouses in 2014, when I worked from snapshots taken on a phone, or entirely from imagination. After another project working with models on location, I then returned to this freer way of working in 2016 with a series about London nail bars. These paintings were the result of something part staged and part documentary: the women having the manicures were friends of mine, dressed in a particular way, but what was captured in the paintings was very faithful to the everyday workings of the salon and intended to capture something of the female dominated environment of such spaces.
I think though the focus of my interest really shifted away from staged narrative last year, after collaborating with the charity Women for Refugee Women to make a series of paintings of refugee and asylum seeking women at their temporary accommodation in London. The resulting paintings were a response to individual women, their circumstances and the experience of meeting them, rather than anything pre-designed by me. Working with these women helped me to see how powerful stories of real people could be and that imagining the stories of those we catch glimpses of in our daily lives could be more sustaining for me as subject matter rather than always inventing a story.
We mentioned that you used to hire models and actresses to perform certain scenes which you would then photograph and finally translate or reinterpret them in your paintings. Could you tell us more about the relationship between painting, photography and performance (and perhaps the grey area explored in this group of paintings – the hospitality work environment which, many would argue, is a form of social performance where one is not their true self)?
I’ve always been interested in the performance of identity, in particular that of femininity, both in the roles that women occupy within society, and more recently in the labour market. Housekeeping is a profession dominated by women and there is certainly something performative in the repetitive routine of cleaning, changing bed sheets and removing all traces of human presence from each room, ready for the next inhabitant. It’s largely an invisible performance though as the very nature of the job is that they are designed to be unseen. The maid spends time carefully cleaning around the possessions of the hotel guest in the space of their temporary home, but the two are destined never to meet.
Photography allows me to record information in environments which wouldn’t allow painting or drawing from life. It also creates distance between my subjects and I, and allows me to frame the experience. The hundreds of photographs take on a life of their own back in the studio with the resulting paintings generated through a mixture of this record of time spent in another’s company, my memory and the process and materiality of paint itself. It is in this materiality that the paintings have the ability to make the inconsequential fleeting moment in the daily routine of cleaning in to something more significant. The process of painting, with its inherent labour and investment of time, can take the snapshot and extend it, slowing down our encounter and imbuing it with meaning.
Cleaning staff in hotels are notoriously a vulnerable category, concerned with issues of immigration, also often being underpaid and overworked. In this sense your paintings are without question quite politically engaged. Could you tell us more about this side of your practice?
There is certainly a political dimension that can be read in to these works, as is also the case in other series, in particular the portraits of female refugees. Even the paintings of sun kissed luxurious houses have a political subtext, though this is less obvious. I’m interested in how society can be explored through the overlooked or in between moments in people’s everyday lives, or in those who live and work invisibly among us in the city.
I have read that the women depicted in your paintings can be regarded as stand-ins for imaginary versions of yourself or sides of yourself. They could each be considered like an imaginary self-portrait. This makes me think of Cindy Sherman and her photographic self-portraits in costume as a way of drawing attention to the mechanisms behind myriad of images we are exposed to daily and the “fashioning of self identity as mass deception”. As you have declared in the past that you are open to Feminist readings of your works, I am wondering if you could tell us why, you think, it’s important for a woman artist to explore these tropes?
Ever since I was a little girl I was fascinated by images of women and it was all I wanted to draw and paint, so for me the exploration of how women express their identity has been a lifelong obsession! It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I questioned why I was so drawn to images of women and had to conclude that it was because we are surrounded by them in artworks and contemporary mass media. Despite the abundance of images of women in our visual culture, the author of the majority of these images have historically been men, particularly when considering the history of painting. As a female artist I hope that by engaging with the way women present themselves and are presented by the societies in which they live, I am able to add to the conversation from a female perspective.
“The performance of femininity becomes one of absurdity.” I have read this statement by you in a 2013 interview with Matt Price. Could you tell us more about these two themes – the performance of femininity and absurdity – and how they co-exist in your works?
I think this relationship of femininity and absurdity was more prevalent in the work I was making at that time. A big part of the way I worked with models on location was to subvert archetypal ideas of femininity. The women occupying the houses were difficult to pin down as owner, housewife, cleaner or intruder with their incongruous clothing and confusing actions. I was using the absurdity of what was being presented to suggest the absurdity of these performative aspects of the identities we occupy.
By drawing on reality in my more recent work I’ve moved away the absurd residing in the figures themselves, to considering the subtle relationships between the environments we construct and how their design influences the way we perform identity within them. When I’m painting, I’m looking for all the visual information that we filter out or accept as the make-up of our surroundings: the fire door signs on every door in a public building, the identical objects arranged in an identical arrangement in each hotel room, or the endless airbrushed glamour shots of women that fill shops and beauty salons, sitting at odds with the reality of the women populating them. These are all the visual signifiers that tell us about what these spaces are and how we are expected to behave in them. I think it’s in these little details that the mechanisms of the relationship between the constructed self and constructed environment are exposed, hinting at an absurdity in this symbiosis.