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Artist Caroline Walker on A Female Gaze, the new Nottingham Castle Exhibition Showcasing Her Work Alongside Dame Laura Knight's

16 March 22 interview: George White

With A Female Gaze, Nottingham Castle are celebrating the work of two generational talents from the art world. The first is Dame Laura Knight, who, as the first woman elected to the Royal Academy in 1936, was a critically acclaimed and much loved painter who created some of her most iconic work here in Nottingham. The second is Caroline Walker, a renowned British contemporary artist whose rich, atmospheric oil paintings reveal the diverse social, cultural and economic experiences of women living in contemporary society. Despite being born almost a century apart, A Female Gaze celebrates the work of both women, while exploring the developments of women artists over the past hundred years. We caught up with Walker ahead of the exhibition's opening to find out more...

How does it feel to have your work featured alongside such a legendary Nottingham figure in Dame Laura Knight? 
It’s a real honour to be showing my work alongside Dame Laura Knight, especially in her hometown where I know she has a big following. I’ve long been an admirer of her paintings so it’s exciting for me to see my work in the context of hers and for common subject interests and parallels in approach to be made. 

How important was Knight's work in fighting back against the male gaze, and how do you channel this into your work? 
Knight was definitely a woman breaking into a very male-dominated art world and she had to be very assertive to make her place within that, pushing for space to be seen on an equal footing with her male counterparts, and ruffling some feathers in the process. To a contemporary viewer her work can look quite conventional in its figuration, given what else was happening with the modernist movement in the first half of the twentieth-century. However Knight’s work was quietly subversive in its depiction of ‘real women’, something which drew criticism from the traditionalists at the time. In her paintings she reflected the lived experiences of women, often giving a glimpse behind the scenes into places that she, as a woman artist, was granted a different access and insight into from that of her male peers. This is something that I try to channel in my own work through my choice of subjects. I want to challenge the historically male gaze in art by turning a specifically female gaze on the lives of women in a contemporary context, to ask if this offers a different viewpoint on their experience.  

Knight's art was obviously completed a significant amount of time ago. Why is it still important that the messages of her work are still promoted to this day, and why is it important for you to promote these messages in your own art? 
I think in many of Knight’s paintings, particularly her non-commissioned work, she represented the overlooked; whether that was a particular group of people within society, or the hidden spaces of women’s work. This is still totally relevant today, both in respect of looking at Laura’s work as a window into a particular time, and as a mode for thinking about what art can do, and something that I feel painting in particular has the capacity to do - make us stop and notice the less visible.

Your work has featured everywhere from New York to Amsterdam. Why did you decide to bring your talents to Nottingham for this exhibition?
Curator Tristram Aver approached me about the exhibition in autumn last year and when he mentioned Laura Knight, I immediately wanted to do the show. Given Knight’s connection to Nottingham the invitation was particularly enticing, and the space of the galleries in the Ducal Palace of Nottingham Castle are beautiful. It’s the first time my paintings have so directly been placed alongside historical works and this is exciting for me, as my main references and influences are the works of historical artists- from seventeenth-century Century Dutch genre painters, to nineteenth and twentieth-century figurative painters, such as Laura Knight.

By looking at these easily overlooked parts of our everyday lives, we can learn something about how we live both on an individual and societal level

Why do you place such a focus on everyday people doing everyday things? What is it about this that is so powerful and moving? 
I think that’s what I’ve always been drawn to. Even as a child I was more interested in real life than fantasy or make believe. I find other people’s lives and the visual details of the spaces in which we live and work fascinating. It’s not the big moments of drama, but the small in between things that make up much of life - the tasks we perform, the objects we surround ourselves with and the places we inhabit. I think by looking at these easily overlooked parts of our everyday lives, we can learn something about how we live both on an individual and societal level. 

And your more recent work has a large focus on the NHS and health workers. Why did you decide to take this approach?
I’ve been making paintings of women at work for a number of years and many of these have focused on women working in female dominated roles, from cleaners in hotels, to beauticians, hairdressers and even my own Mum doing housework. A conversation back in 2018 about making an exhibition for The Fitzrovia Chapel in London, which is the formal chapel of Middlesex Hospital, led to an interest in making work about women nurses at UCLH, which is the hospital closest to the chapel. I started speaking with the hospital in 2019 about a residency, and then shortly after got pregnant and started visiting UCLH in a personal capacity for scans and appointments, and then the birth itself. This connection to the hospital led me to focusing on the maternity wing for my residency. It seemed like the obvious choice for my work since it's such a women centred part of the hospital, both in respect to the patients all being women, and a predominantly female workforce.

The paintings in this series explore the meeting point of two forms of women’s labour - the ‘essential’ work of bearing children and the professional work of those facilitating this and providing care. And in this meeting point, the ‘everyday’ of women’s work as midwives, nurses and doctors comes up against the ‘exceptional’ experience of giving birth. I wanted to look at this subject through the small interactions and moments of care, a contemporary viewpoint on a very ancient practice of women assisting women through pregnancy, childbirth and the early days of motherhood. 

What can people expect from the exhibition, and why should they come and check it out? 
They can expect to see a range of recent paintings covering several different series of work within the broader theme of women at work. We’re also showing a lot of my preparatory sketches, including pencil drawings and scale charcoal studies, which have never left the studio before. I think it’ll help to build up a picture of how I work towards making my larger scale paintings and, along with the short film on show in the gallery, give a bit of an insight into what I do in the studio. 

A Female Gaze is exhibiting at Nottingham Castle from Saturday 19 March. Visit the Nottingham Castle website for more information

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