Art reviews: Caroline Walker at Ingleby | John Byrne at Glasgow Print Studio

Caroline Walker’s wonderful paintings of her mother Janet offer rarely seen domestic scenes, while portraits of and by John Byrne reveal the 80-year-old’s talent and charisma

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 5:38 pm
Heading In, Midday by Caroline Walker PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Ingleby Gallery
Heading In, Midday by Caroline Walker PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Ingleby Gallery

Caroline Walker: Janet, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh *****

John Byrne at 80, Glasgow Print Studio ****

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Dear John, A Thirty Year Portrait, Glasgow Print Studio ****

Detail from Tucking In, Late Evening by Caroline Walker PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Ingleby Gallery

For some time, artist Caroline Walker has been engaged in making paintings about women’s work, from housekeeping staff in hotels, to a waitress in a cafe sweeping up after her shift, to the women who staff London’s nail bars. But she also became aware of a parallel much closer to home: that some of the work she observed was not so different from the daily routines of her mother, Janet, in the family home in Dunfermline.

One of a generation of women who chose not to work after her marriage, Janet made her home (in her case, a large house in Scots baronial style where she and Walker’s father have lived for 40 years) her focus. The paintings witness her going about her tasks, some regular, others occasional or seasonal, with a quiet order. It’s an intimate study, perhaps even a celebration, of work which happens behind closed doors, which one would never expect to see on gallery walls.

We see Janet changing pillowcases, hoovering, cleaning the bathroom sink, tending bedding plants, watering rhododendrons. Often, we glimpse her through a window, or busy in another room, absorbed in her activity, apparently unaware of the artist or the viewer. The subtext, of course, is very different: the work could not have happened without a companionship between mother and daughter, a quiet mutual respect each for the other.

Walker took hundreds of photographs of her mother over the course of a year. However, what is clear is that once she took them into her studio, her concerns became primarily painterly. Scaled up in academic fashion into pencil sketches, oil sketches and finally large paintings, these are very fine works, worthy of the comparisons which have been made to Vuillard, Bonnard or Mary Cassatt.

Wee Me, by John Byrne PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Glasgow Print Studio

She is always aware of light: warm, golden light streaming through closed blinds behind Janet, who is changing bed linen; the play of light on a lawn, or a polished wooden door. Each painting has a distinct colour palette: a soft harmony of pink, cream and turquoise, or the golds and russets of a firelit interior. Walker challenges herself to work with contrasting light levels: looking in at Janet cooking, one dark December afternoon, framed in a bright window, or looking out at her, paused by a flowerbed on a bright day in May, making decisions about what to plant next.

The compositions create a sense of drama: framing her in a doorway while she hoovers, or working with the plants in her conservatory at night, caught in the bright interior light in otherwise dark surroundings. She is a small but determined figure in these high-ceilinged rooms, or in the garden, dwarfed by towering conifers. Perhaps her chores, while manageable in themselves, are in actual fact – like all housework and gardening – infinite.

In contemporary culture, the suburban domestic scene has all too often had sinister overtones, or has been portrayed as the realm of bored, frustrated women. This is more complex, perhaps more interesting: a quiet appraisal of one woman’s choice, and the potential beauty of the ordinary things of life. Walker, an alumus of Glasgow School of Art, has lived in London since finishing at the Royal College of Art in 2009. This is a rare chance to see her work in Scotland, and a quietly dazzling homecoming.

Turning 80 earlier this year seems to have done nothing to stint John Byrne’s productivity, with this celebratory show at Glasgow Print Studio coming hard on the heels of an exhibition of paintings at the Fine Art Society in July, and one in the Members’ Gallery at the RSA 18 months earlier. The prints in this show might span 30 years, but a good number are recent, with the newest hand-coloured screenprints completed during lockdown.

Byrne’s art is unmistakable, both in its style and in its visual repertoire. He is also an artist for whom the self portrait is a vital tool, so his own face crops up again and again in these pictures, worked over in the service of different themes but always unmistakable (the moustache, the striped T-shirt, the cigarette).

Many of the most recent works are double portraits – Me and Him, Don’t Look Back and so on – encounters, one supposes, between the artist and his younger self. In one self portrait, Momento Mori, executed (no pun intended) with a certain clear-eyed humour, the grim reaper appears as a stick figure on his shoulder. He is a superb draughtsman, and seems to take to each process in the print workshop (monoprint, etching, mezzotint, intaglia) with the same precision and energy.

The familiar images of teddy boys, the visual renderings of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti are here, but the show also ranges much more widely: still lifes and harlequin figures beg comparisons to Picasso and Braque; beautifully executed screenprints – Boy with moth, Boy with lion – seem drawn from a personal lexicon of symbolism, à la Steven Campbell. A louche downtown figure in an Echo Party T-shirt nods to his recent paintings of black subjects, which seemed to prefigure Black Lives Matter.In a fitting accompaniment to this show, Dear John, A Thirty Year Portrait, photographer David Eustace shows a limited edition folio of portraits of Byrne – 12 pictures, made since he first photographed him in 1989, and a 13th produced for the exhibition (ironically titled Young John). They demonstrate just what a fine subject Byrne is for a photographer, stylish, self-contained, playful, with a natural sense of drama.

He brings something different to each shot: the moody one in the hat where half his face is in shadow; the playful one, in which the hat hides his face altogether; the contemplative frown of a mid-European philosopher; the guitar-strumming charm of a country singer; the dandyish mustard tweed suit (which also appears in his own work upstairs). Variations in facial hair to one side, in 30 years, he has changed remarkably little. As in his paintings and prints, he is a master of many guises, but always, incontrovertibly, himself. ■

Caroline Walker: Janet until 19 December, at Ingleby Gallery, by appointment, and at www.inglebygallery.com; John Byrne at 80 and Dear John, A Thirty Year Portrait until 30 October, at Glasgow Print Studio (new opening hours Tuesday-Saturday 11am-5pm) and at www.glasgowprintstudio.co.uk