The more than twenty paintings in “Windows,” London-based painter Caroline Walker’s first solo show at a museum, depict women engaged in various kinds of work: a maid in a hotel room, a hostess taking reservations in a restaurant, a hairdresser on the salon floor. Walker observes these figures through a window or doorway. Such framed views add a layer of estrangement and abstraction to her quotidian scenes, ensuring that we viewers never forget our voyeuristic perspective.
Walker is keyed to the social environments her figures inhabit, homing in on details such as lighting, decor, and body language. At the same time, she moves through different ways of mark-making, shifting gears between the clearly articulated and foggier parts of an interior, for example, or between sparkling accents such as a glistening glass with an orange drink on the table and bland patches like a blank wall.
These paintings do not contrive spectacular effects, but rather impress through their insistent focus on scenes of contemporary life that might otherwise go unnoticed. A swirling pattern of flowers on the window of a hair salon, for example, attracts our attention to what is happening inside. Through painting, the artist bestows attention on women, their occupations, and their more or less fortunate situation in society. This alone does not grant them agency; Walker’s work, often based on photographs taken in secret, is less concerned with producing empowering representations than it is with probing the act of spectatorship. She enacts the possibility of painting to accumulate layers of reflection, a haptic experience of life observed, leaving the sociological analysis to her viewers.
This text was first published as a Critics’ Pick on Artforum.com in November 2021