BY Hettie Judah in Features | 27 SEP 22
Featured in
Issue 229

Hettie Judah on the Place of Motherhood in the Art World

The writer interrogates the meaning of care, as well as communicating beyond the mother echo-chamber, through the works of Caroline Walker

BY Hettie Judah in Features | 27 SEP 22

Edging into fresh territory, it is hard to predict where we might find ourselves soft and unarmoured. Surrounded by paintings of a woman heavily pregnant, then breastfeeding her newborn, I was struck, hard, by a still life of plastic feeding and pumping bottles, uncoupled and drying in a white tray. Something about that plastic: tough enough to boil on a stovetop, smooth and curved in echo of the maternal breast, cuffed in garish yellow as though the selecting mother was herself infantile. I had not fed a newborn for almost 20 years, but the textures and tones of this paraphernalia – at once medical and emotional, and freighted with such anxiety – touched something long buried.

Bottles and pumps (2022) was shown in Caroline Walker’s Stephen Friedman Gallery exhibition ‘Lisa’ – her third to explore facets of contemporary motherhood. The first – ‘Janet’ at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery – followed the artist’s mother across a year, tracking her domestic routine. Janet’s devotion to the family home was expressed in daily, monthly and annual rituals, a kind of Liturgy of the Hours: making fishcakes, cleaning the sink, watering the garden. A painter who delights in reflected light, as well as the compositional possibilities of domestic architecture, Walker lavished attention on tiled floors and shiny surfaces, much as her seventeenth-century forbears had done in honouring the godly cleanliness of the wealthy Dutch.

Caroline Walker Bottles and Pumps
Caroline Walker, Bottles and pumps, 2022, oil on board, 36 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; photograph: Peter Mallet

The second, ‘Birth Reflections’, followed a residency in a hospital maternity wing. On canvases the monumental scale of history paintings, hung in London’s ornate Fitzrovia Chapel, Walker charted the medical rigmarole of modern birth, from ultrasound scan, to birthing pool, to a neonate’s first nappy change. In this chapel, the cobalt of medical scrubs supplanted the radiant ultramarine of the Madonna’s robes. In the ‘altarpiece’ Theatre (2021) – a surgical scene after a delivery by caesarean section – mother and child occupy opposite ends of the painting, their traditional pictorial unity sundered by a medical team and room full of surgical appliances.

Walker has long assumed the position of artist-voyeur, a pose from which she invites us to follow her gaze, deep into spaces otherwise overlooked. In an earlier series, we have followed her as, true to name, she walks the night streets of the city, gazing through glass at nail bar technicians, office cleaners and housekeeping staff, all lit by the purplish glare of neon strips. This is a world of women’s work: of labour taking place in our peripheral vision.

Exhibition View Birth Reflections Caroline Walker
Caroline Walker, 'Birth Reflections', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Fitzrovia Chapel and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; photograph: Peter Mallet

Walker has maintained her station as voyeur in exploring motherhood. Across the deep violet of an evening window ledge, we observe her mother cooking in the buttery yellow of her Scottish kitchen. From the shadowy corner of a consulting room, we catch the grainy white wash of a baby in utero picked out by a sonographer gliding a scanner across a pregnant woman’s stomach. In the ‘Lisa’ paintings, the expectant mother is watched through the frame in an archway, as per Fra Angelico. Rather than anticipating the annunciation, she is packing her hospital bag.

After the birth, Walker gazes in through white garden windows to the warmth and new chaos of a maternal kitchen, as though a spy in the house of mother. Which she is not, (at least not in an invasive sense.) Indeed, these three bodies of work dance as close as an artist could to her own maternal identity without actually revealing it. During her work on Janet, Walker became pregnant: bound up in the apparently cool gaze with which she watches her mother’s patient labour is a new sense of identification. This legacy of care will be passed down to another generation. It is care that manifests itself not only in familial nurture, but also in attention to the task in hand (Walker is nothing if not a careful painter, the creamy ease of whose finished work is the result of dogged planning and preparation).

Coincidentally, the residency that preceded ‘Birth Reflections’ occurred in the maternity ward in which Walker had recently given birth (a difficult experience during which her partner distracted her by asking how she’d achieve various colours in their surrounding environment in paint). In focusing works such as Theatre on the choreography of the medical team, she extends her existing commitment to picturing lesser-seen women’s labour, but also reflects the experience of the patient/mother, who sees everything but herself, as she anxiously watches medics and machines.

Caroline Walker Refreshments painting
Caroline Walker, Refreshments, 2022, oil on linen, 130 × 120 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; photograph: Peter Mallet

The titular ‘Lisa’ is Walker’s sister-in-law, whose pregnancy and maternity followed the artist’s own. Lisa and her environment are tracked with a knowledgeable eye; Walker seeks out and finds the blurry vigil of night feeds, and the attendant water bottles and glasses crowding in around a nursing mother trying to keep her milk flowing. Watching through the windows in Roundmoor Drive (2022), Walker lines up a magnetic strip carrying winking kitchen knives so that the blades form a neat row behind Lisa as she bounces her baby, a suggestion of maternal ambivalence that is not (yet) Lisa’s. Walker, too, is edging into fresh territory, testing her own vulnerabilities as she explores her emerging identity as a mother at one remove.

Positioning myself, like Walker, as a benign voyeur, I have watched the display and reception of first ‘Birth Reflections’ and then ‘Lisa’ in the months since finishing a short book on attitudes to motherhood – as both state and subject – in the art world. Both shows drew audiences of new mothers: for many visitors, this was an emotional experience. Motherhood per se is hardly a new subject, but for it to be addressed by an artist informed by first-hand knowledge in this way is unusual. This is not only fresh territory for Walker, but for us as her audience.

There are many reasons we are not used to seeing such raw, knowing, careful depictions of new motherhood in art of this scale and ambition. One is simply a question of available time: the first six months after birth are a relentless cycle of feeding, soothing and changing, punctuated (if breastfeeding) by the consumption of liquid in sufficient quantity to keep the cycle flowing. After this, if the mother is the primary carer (and if an artist, she often will be), her days may offer brief periods in which she can work while her child naps. This does not allow for the messy, time-consuming routine of working in oils, let alone long hours of immersion in a big canvas. (There’s a practical reason so many artist mothers turn to textile and video work.)

Caroline Walker Roundmoor Drive
Caroline Walker, Study for Roundmoor Drive, 2022, oil on paper, 42 × 63 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; photograph: Peter Mallet

Another reason is a question of prejudice. In recent accounts from art schools in the UK and US, students report being counselled not only against making work about motherhood, but against becoming mothers themselves: both were considered an impediment to a serious career. I do not wish to project motives onto Walker, but I can understand why any artist might pause before considering her own maternity safe territory to explore in her art.

I recently told an editor from a national newspaper that I had just written a book on the problems faced by artist mothers. He cheerily ventured that it sounded like a perfect flexible career for a mother, and wondered what the issues could possibly be? Rather than throw a fishcake at him, I sighed and recalled Audre Lorde’s exasperated line about having to ‘reinvent the pencil every time you want to send a message’. After years spent engaged in research around the subject, the issues seemed self-evident, but of course to those who are not themselves immersed in them, they are not. As the artist Martina Mullaney has pointed out, while motherhood in art is now the subject of podcasts, blogs, zines and conferences, almost all such conversations take place within an artist-mother echo chamber – the question is how to communicate beyond that.

Walker is among a handful of artists currently propelling motherhood – both as subject and state – beyond this echo chamber. In series including ‘System of Attachment’ (2018–21), Camille Henrot has explored the maternal body as a site of productivity, a source of both food and language. In Henrot’s blood-red watercolours, the working mother obliged to express her milk through a breast pump morphs into a creature with a hybrid, industrial-animal body.

These artists explore vital issues: the medicalization of childbirth, the lingering ideal of the self-sacrificing mother as the moral foundation of society, the relative values placed on different spheres of labour, the mother and child as united yet separate bodies. Within an art world fascinated by care, actual (rather than metaphorical) motherhood remains discomforting territory for many. It is exciting to watch how this powerful work reveals so many of us to be soft and unarmoured as we encounter motherhood, knowingly pictured.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 229 with the headline ‘Birth Reflections’. 

Main image: Caroline Walker, Afternoon Feed, 2022, oil on linen, 145 × 200 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; photograph: Peter Mallet

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.