There is a painting in the Caroline Walker series Janet of her mother cleaning the bathroom sink. It’s a beautiful bathroom, the soft pink morning light echoing the pink of her mother’s sweater. Light from the window filters through the pale blue bottle of bathroom cleaner, matching Janet’s blue rubber gloves. She looks up, in the middle of the swill around the basin.
It is a tender portrait. In it, I recognize both my own mother and her immaculate bathroom. I was taught how to clean a bathroom by my mother, and I often marvel at my partner’s lack of knowledge of these things – for example, how to polish faucets with a dry cloth. (Ideally, you need two cloths to clean the basin, one dry and one wet.) And let’s not even talk about the mirror.
“Houseproud” is a word with a negative connotation. Yet what stands out from Walker’s portrayals of his mother is how dignified and intimate her job of maintaining the house. Something about the soft, earthy light of the bathroom signals comfort, a degree of middle-class luxury, with the nostalgic aesthetic—Victorian, bidet—of a now empty, slightly outdated family home. In the slight smile he captures and the way the scene is framed by the edge of the shower stall, Walker elevates the status of the work his mother is engaged in to something beyond housework.
That’s not how I’m used to thinking about housework. While writing my novel violets, I took the opposite approach. Women are inclined, on all fours, to rub the stains that others have made. I wrote the housekeeping in the novel from beginning to end, quite deliberately. It’s a World War II novel, but the world it depicts is domestic, tied to women’s work and women’s bodies as fighting, and men, continue elsewhere. It is a world of repeated small gestures: at the munitions factory, at home, between lovers, between mother and child. The book is partly based on the story of my father’s birth, and as I see it now, I realize that it is imbued with the very particular domesticity of my paternal grandmother. That is, the working class and the struggle for respectability through the trappings of the house, the trinkets and the drop-leaf table giving the appearance of upward social mobility. But also by cleanliness and order, all signs of bodily processes erased from sheets, clothes, floors. My grandmother was from another time and place, but when I looked at Walker’s painting of her mother called “Ironing Tea Towels”, I thought of her.
What is fascinating about Walker’s portraits are the habitual gestures and practices captured in easy, unconscious movements. In a series called Housekeeping, Walker depicts scenes of hotel staff cleaning corporate suites. The contrast of these interiors is striking against the comfortable domestic spaces in which the portraits of Walker’s mother are placed. Yet here again, the women’s bodily movements are captured with momentary accuracy – the shoulder-to-shoulder walk of picking up a stack of towels and spinning with them; the neutral expression of repetition.
It is this sense of action, expressed in loose brushstrokes with a luminosity that evokes the Dutch Golden Age – graceful, almost ladylike – that is so striking. That’s not to say that Walker idealizes the job of cleaning and vacuuming (one of his mother’s portraits is titled “The Housekeeper”, another “Hanging Out His Overalls”), it’s just that what strikes first is the dignity of every act, leaving us to think about politics ourselves. She creates a sense of subjectivity in the women she portrays, without ever feeling uncomfortable. I know I was looking for something like this in my book (and I did, reducing every word to its precise weight, giving meaning to every domestic act). What Walker achieves is almost weightless.
She makes her paintings through an observation process, observation of women in the workplace or, for a series currently broadcast on Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, spending time with his sister-in-law Lisa in the months following his birth. Working from sketches and photographs to create large and smaller scale oil works, Walker explained how his paintings go beyond mere factual record. They are imbued with the memories and emotions that flow from time spent with his subjects. It is perhaps in this process of synaptic connection that his paintings are invested with their warmth. The medium of painting also seems important, the process of rendering life in a new form – less immediate than a photograph, more layered, so that the paintings shine.
I can identify with this process. violets is, in many ways, my attempt to render family history in a new form (both in poetry and prose), and I still struggle with the factual record on which it is based. My dad annotated his copy of the book with his own observations about which parts are true, and who really is who (Auntie Joan? Auntie Monica?) among the characters I insist are made up. Much like the titles of Walker’s paintings – “Elaine”, “Alem”, “Torh”, “Carol and Lil” – the balance between familiarity and anonymity is ambiguous. Her paintings take us beyond the act of seeing towards a feeling of recognition, of knowing, instinctively, the social world that she represents. Even though we’ve never met “Elaine”, we probably meet someone like her all the time. It’s just that we might not notice it.
Other work scenes associated with women’s work, often migrant women’s work, are also invested with a sense of noticing what often goes unnoticed. Women working in nail bars, hair salons, cafes, bakeries, dry cleaners; those that serve our daily needs, some more frivolous than others. The relentlessness of these needs and of our own consumption comes back to us in a few paintings representing garbage bags piled up in front of shops or cafes at dusk. This is the kind of labor we consider unskilled, disposable, whose use value is inherent in what we extract from it.
Walker’s recent paintings of health and social care workers, as seen in the series Birth thoughtsshown to Fitzrovia Chapel and University Hospital of London earlier this year. The balance between providing medical care and more subtle, elusive care is beautifully rendered in scenes that are clinical in terms of the process and interventions they represent (an ultrasound, a C-section, a birthing pool ), but hum with the physical presence of affection. There is something deeply empathetic yet professional, unobtrusive, about the calm posture of a midwife, hands behind her back, head at a side, during the exhausted labor pause.
The notion of familiarity is a constant in Walker’s work. The question of what it takes to produce familiarity, to create feelings of comfort or belonging, as in his series of portraits of asylum seekers titled House. In a recent book titled Nearby, Walker depicts the area around his studio in North London. Some paintings capture life through windows from outside, when the lights are on but the curtains are not yet drawn. With the blue light of dusk contrasting with the warm yellows and ochres of the artificial light of the interior, Walker plays with a certain dose of voyeurism. It’s an impulse that I recognize. Growing up on the outskirts of Birmingham, my mother and I would choose a particular route home through the more salubrious neighborhoods of Edgbaston and Harborne in the early evening, slowing down to catch a glimpse of the garlands, fireplaces and furniture at inside. We were envious, of course, but we appreciated the warm glow of their promise. Walker’s views through the windows draw us in like this, as if we too seek the warmth and light, or the cozy inner worlds they represent.
This interplay of borders is also a feature of Walker’s current exhibition, Lisa. The composition of many paintings is based on frames of interior space – in the hallway holding the baby, through an archway in the kitchen, doing the dishes, and framed by what could be the height of a fridge or cupboard pantry. There is no doubt that the grace of Walker’s subjects comes from the way light animates their habitual bodies and movements (which in another tradition might have been the soft glow of a milkmaid’s forehead, the skin pale from his arm where his sleeves are rolled up and the milk flowing from the jug). But it’s the distinction between natural light and artificial light that I find most striking. For me, the luminosity of Walker’s paintings is inherent in the way light draws attention to the boundaries between interior space and exterior space.
In a table of Lisa exhibit, Walker’s sister-in-law is seen from the outside through an upstairs window. The window’s beveled UPVC frame is slightly open, its inside handle visible. It is dark and the light inside is warm as the woman cradles her newborn baby, her head on her sleeping shoulder. Another painting represents the interior of what could be the same room, in the profound calm of the first hours when even the light of the lamp would be too bright. Rather, it’s the light from the street lamp shining through the open curtains as Lisa sits in a chair breastfeeding. And it’s the light, as it transcends these multiple framings of inside and outside, private and public, that signals something more about what we see in Walker’s work. These windows and doors – but also the shower cubicles, the kitchen cupboards, the piles of towels and the laundry – are the intimate boundaries that she allows us to cross.
Whether it’s her mother in the comfort of her home, contract housekeepers or NHS midwives, Walker questions what counts as ‘women’s work’ today. His paintings resonate with a sense of care – in his skill in rendering everyday gestures, in their luminosity and compositional depth. By elevating these deeply familiar forms of work to large-scale works of art, Walker invites us to revisit them.
Alex Hyde is the author of ‘Violets’ (Granta). ‘Caroline Walker: Lisa’ is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London until May 28
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