At the Stephen Friedman Gallery, a series of intimate portraits and ink drawings ponder the daily routines of a first-time mother and her newborn baby. On view until May 28, Caroline Walker’s solo exhibition “Lisa” shares her name with the artist’s sister-in-law, one of the main subjects of this latest body of work.
“I was thinking about how I felt going through this experience — this huge transition and this physical shift, and this shift in identity where the scope of everything possible seems to shrink to the level of the domestic,” Walker said in a interview. with Artsy. She began the series working from photographs when Lisa was six months pregnant, drawing in charcoal and ink before transferring the images to oil on canvas. Now Walker’s niece Lisa’s baby is nine months old.
The paintings on display range from small, loosely rendered studies to life-size works that seem immersive, as if you can step inside. They focus solely on Lisa and her baby girl and take place entirely in the various rooms of their house. A trio of 2022 paintings titled variations of night food immortalize the sleepy first days of motherhood. Illuminated with night light, the works document the day Lisa returned home from the hospital. “She handled her baby like she might break it, but she was still able to hold it with that innate understanding of mothers,” Walker recalled. The paintings embody the heady, instinctive vibe of early parenthood.
Walker creates pictorial conversations with the depictions of middle-class public life of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet in the 19th century; she also leaned on Mary Cassatt’s portraits of women and children. Yet what is striking about Walker’s works is their resistance to expectation; the artist ignores sentimentality despite his deep personal connection to his subjects. A sense of creeping isolation and monotony is evoked by his depiction of the changing natural light filtering in from the outside and his attention to the rambling objects strewn across the surfaces. Unfinished cups of tea and water, discarded books, unopened presents and overflowing laundry suggest a rhythm of constant interruptions.
One of the two still lifes in the exhibition depicts a basin filled with baby bottles and pump parts ready to be cleaned. “I had never seen a painting of a breast pump!” exclaimed Walker. His intention was not to glorify or diminish the experience, but to find a more truthful expression. “The image of motherhood is often idealized and romanticized,” Walker said. “I wanted to quietly evoke the claustrophobia, the loneliness, the joy of the connection you feel with this person you have created, but also the mixture of other emotions.”
Sometimes the paintings border on the sinister. In Roundmoor Walk (2022), the viewer’s perspective is fixed on the outside, peering through a glass door, reminiscent of a film noir or Gregory Crewdson photograph. The viewer’s observant gaze is constantly felt, but the subject, so wrapped up in duty and love, does not turn around. It is also a reminder of a private inner world, the unknowable bond between mother and child that the outside cannot access.
Walker’s debut at Stephen Friedman follows “Birth Reflections”, an exhibition of works at London’s Fitzrovia Chapel painted from photographs of the maternity ward at University College Hospital, London where Walker gave birth. The paintings show the clinical side of work and motherhood. At once emotional, dramatic and documentary in their approach, they work in tandem with the pieces of “Lisa” to expand the narrative around care at the invisible job, to what happens when you come home.
Although the works resonate deeply with women who have gone through these experiences, Walker said, “I don’t want to exclude anyone from the conversation; motherhood is linked to a larger topic of care that everyone can identify with. Her paintings are part of a larger shift – further accelerated by the pandemic and the shift in public focus towards the domestic – to portray birth and motherhood with nuance and intrigue.
“I think if I had done the work five years ago, it wouldn’t be watched in the same interest, or beyond the direct topic,” Walker said. “Conversation has evolved a lot and is seen as something more universally interesting.” And what, after all, is more universally shared than the passage of our mother’s body to the Earth?