International Women’s Day is a day of celebration, reflection and action, and on March 8 we come together to recognise the achievements of women, to address the barriers that perpetuate gender inequality and to amplify women’s voices and visibility. Assembly Label takes pride in extolling the work of women in our community and this month we are honoured to welcome artists Caroline Walls and Lilli Waters to our Artist in Residence series. Working across different media, both Caroline and Lilli are interested in representing female bodies and capturing experiences of womanhood in intimate ways, and their work is on display in Melbourne stores this March.
If you think of Caroline Walls’ work as being chapters within a greater story, her most recent paintings are the beginning of an entirely new book — “a sequel” as she puts it. In late 2022 the Melbourne-based visual artist presented Mother Lover, her most personal collection to date. In Caroline’s words, the collection of oil paintings reveals “the quiet unseen moments in my marriage and motherhood that are often overlooked or forgotten” while signalling a move toward a figurative style. Admirers of Caroline’s work will be well-acquainted with her more reductive pieces, and this new painterly direction feels like a perfectly timed departure. “Working with oil paint, a medium I haven’t used in many years, tells a more intimate story,” Caroline explains. “I hope the works are imbued with the emotions that I was feeling in the moments that I am capturing — love, longing, joy and sadness.”
Photography by Tasha Tylee
Photography by Tasha Tylee
Caroline has always found inspiration in the female form and contemporary perceptions of female sexuality, but recently she’s sought it within the nurturing arms of her own home. “I tend to draw on my experiences as a woman, lover, artist and mother,” says Caroline. “The artworks capture musings on my own life — the ordinariness and extraordinariness of the everyday experience. Fleeting moments that may seem mundane or insignificant but are actually imbued with real intimacy and tenderness.” If everyday life is the moment, Caroline’s wife Emma is the muse, and in Mother Lover Caroline weaves two powerful forces together — motherhood and sensuality. There are creases of skin, clothes framing imperfect postures and glimpses of undressed, uninhibited bodies. “In these new figurative works I looked to divorce the female body from any context, radically cropping the body to merge my gaze as the artist with that of the viewer, and in turn making the viewer a participant in these moments.”
In becoming a mother to daughters Lue and Olive, Caroline felt increasingly attuned to the importance of touch, connection and emotional intimacy, and this may go some way to explaining the shift in her practice. “I had the desire to humanise my work more, personalise it in a way I hadn’t explored previously,” shares Caroline. “The art I’ve created since becoming a mother to my daughters has focused on depicting the varied experiences of motherhood. My experience with pregnancy, birth and postpartum has connected me with my body and sense of self in profound, complex and beautiful ways, and these experiences have informed the figures and forms I create.”
Another force informing Caroline’s practice is the cultural and political climate she works within. As a queer woman, Caroline feels an urge to create art that’s part of a pivotal conversation. “The representation and visibility of queer womanhood and the LGBTQIA community within the history of art is relatively non-existent and to have my work play a small part in that exchange is really important to me. I’ve started to think more about what political implications my painting could have, versus the more conceptual, abstract approach to womanhood I have previously been working with,” Caroline says. “Artists have the ability to highlight and underscore current cultural attitudes, so validating queer love and families is of paramount importance – particularly for younger generations. Now that I’m raising two daughters of my own I think a lot about young people and the significance of seeing representation of the queer community within the arts and media as they grow up, helping to remove fear or stigma that’s prevalent within the mainstream.”
Art as a catalyst for self discovery and visibility is something Caroline is all too familiar with, having found herself exploring her sexuality at the same time she was returning to art-making after a prolonged pause. “Through my art I allowed that part of myself to come to the fore in a way I previously hadn’t opened up to. There was a new-found freedom through painting that changed the trajectory of my life in beautiful ways,” she reflects. Her artwork titled Loves Distance, which features in Caroline’s Artist in Residence, offers a glimpse into that life. Caroline painted it for Emma in the lead up to the birth of their second daughter, and it remains in their personal collection. “It’s symbolic of our growing family… and is one of the last large abstract works I painted before beginning the Mother Lover collection,” Caroline tells.
There is a singular power in Caroline’s experience and it’s one she harnesses with grace and grit, asserting the female gaze and disrupting heterosexual and patriarchal ideals. “The vast majority of nudes and portraits represented in art history depict the female through the male gaze and I challenge this through my work,” she says. “I like to think my unique experiences as a woman in a same-sex marriage and with a beautiful rainbow family gives me the opportunity to talk to something much bigger within the social constructs of our society. I hope to explore and expand on this through my art over the coming years and beyond.”