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Caroline Walker: ideal home show

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Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Abigail Gliddon takes a look at an exhibition of work by Caroline Walker

Juicy melons, neatly pruned topiary, efforts to keep the undergrowth at bay. Not the tagline for Carry on Gardening, but the symbols artist Caroline Walker uses to explore the interaction between women and architecture. Sir John Soane’s own ‘dream house’ in Ealing, west London, is a fitting place for this, her first solo show; In Every Dream Home takes interior-magazine perfection and, through shadows, odd reflections and warning signal colours makes the experience jarring and hostile. The elegant top-lit gallery is filled with Walker’s women - professional models - in shiny modern homes, wearing cut-out swimsuits and Elizabeth Taylor jewels. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art and the RCA, Walker’s work pays particular attention to women’s experience of the house. Not of appliances and other typically domestic objects, but of shelves, doors and windows. This series is set mostly outside, but her more tender, reflective interior portraits have Edward Hopper-esque shades of a summer wasted indoors.

The exhibition takes its name from the Roxy Music song In Every Dream Home a Heartache, an ode to depressed trophy wives that should have been a contender for the Desperate Housewives theme tune. It includes the lines ‘Penthouse perfection/But what goes on/What to do there/Better pray there’ and Walker’s figures pace their gilded cages with that same sense of restless boredom. Reflections dominate each of the scenes, as if acknowledging the unlikely fact that women look in a mirror up to 71 times a day. A fishbowl mirror becomes a porthole, an inflatable rubber ball a crystal orb. Each picture portrays these round foreground shapes in conflict with icy steel and sharp edges of the house itself. The impersonal beiges of stone and concrete flatter the lush green landscape design, with crimson flowers and the orange flesh of fruit bringing bright stabs of colour.

The most complete piece is a painting in two halves, Ward Round I and II, which each stand on opposing sides of a small ante-room. Assuming most people turn instinctively left when they enter a gallery, they are placed out of sequence and are more chilling for it. The second painting, seen first, shows the backs of a couple side-by-side in siesta. The other reveals their faces, laden with gloom, and a pair of scissors lying ominously in a doorway. Elsewhere, the title painting In Every Dream Home sees one woman sweeping the path from the shade of an overgrown wilderness, while another figure suns herself. Walker plays with contrasts and reversals of roles, and each takes her turn as maid or model, observer or observed. The sense is that this is a cast, ready to act out the lives of other women. The compositions are deliberate, photographed and painted later in the studio. The resulting pictures are compiled from the same half-truths as fashion spreads, but rather than selling us luxury, they are tinged with dissatisfaction.   

Like aftersun, the works together imply a too-hot day beginning at last to cool. There is an expectation, a threat of something to come or a pool party yet to happen. But, for the most part, unlike a slate-lined infinity pool, these waters do not run deep. Despite the effort put into creating the grand set-pieces, the questions Walker raises about the pressure to perfect and maintain - not solely a preoccupation of women, I’d hope - are frustratingly noncommittal. Intentionally or not, the symbolism takes a turn towards parody; the person I was with asked “how many more bushes?” Still, the languid elegance of In Every Dream Home manages to create an intoxicating vision of an imperfect world. 

Exhibition In Every Dream Home, PM Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, Admission free, until 8 September


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