Thursday, March 3, 2011

Caroline Walker at Ana Christea

      Last week, the British painter Caroline Walker opened a solo exhibition at Ana Christea, featuring a series of interior paintings from a set she fabricated in London. While a lot of these scenes involve mundane scenes of dressing, sorting clothes, and household work, they are flooded by a sense of mystery and surreal distance. The voyeuristic delight one might get from catching someone in one of the many unguarded, vulnerable activities in which Walker depicts her subject is eroded by a feeling that what we see, while certainly private, ultimately teases our desire for catching people in moments in which they are truly being themselves.

Caroline Walker chats with a friend in front of Conservation, 2010, oil on canvas,  79 x 114 in.)

Walker smiled when I told her I had just returned from a trip to the MoMA (to see the Picasso: Guitars exhibit) and saw the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina's World (1948). 

Andrew Wyeth. Christina's World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel. 32 1/4 x 47 3/4 in.
      Recently moved from a spot in the hallway near the escalator that made it difficult to look at without getting in the way of people walking to and from the actual galleries, Wyeth's painting is like many of Walker's in that it draws a lot of its emotive power from what it doesn't show about its subject. Noting that both Wyeth's and Walker's paintings are also both of women, it's tempting to cite passages from The Second Sex where Simone de Beauvoir recites a litany of mythical depictions of women that seem to be united almost exclusively to the concept of mystery, with the possible implication that these paintings are the extension of such a tradition. 

      I'd rather not go down that road. For one thing, I can't find my copy of The Second Sex and make a viable argument about it. Moreover, while de Beauvoir describes the collectively-understood connection between femininity and mystery as a reason that women are often denied a strong, active identity in Western culture, Walker's paintings endow their subjects with an agency and control that I don't think they would have if their faces were visible (with the possible exceptions of A Deed Without a Name from 2010 and Second Opinion from 2011). Scrubbing the tiles of a kitchen floor or standing on tip-toe to place a vase on a high glass shelf, women in Walker's paintings are indeed fragile, but they are utterly self-determined.

Caroline Walker: Vantage Point is on view from now until April 2nd at Ana Christea Gallery, 521 West 26th St, New York.

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