With its twinkling city lights in the distance, seductive glow of the illuminated swimming pool below, and sumptuous sheen of the satin nightgown worn by the seated woman in the foreground, the painting Tinseltown (2017) and all of the other works on display in Sunset — the debut exhibition from London-based figurative painter Caroline Walker’s at Anat Ebgi — delight the eye and highlight the lavish lifestyle of a chic, mature woman living in the Hollywood Hills. Through the twelve oil paintings and works on paper displayed here, she is depicted lounging in the pool, trying on clothes and brunching at the famed Beverly Hills Hotel. Although this David Hockney-esque realm of fantastical wealth and luxury is enviable, one cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness hanging in the air. Perhaps this melancholy stems from the fact that she is all alone. Ultimately, Sunset takes the viewer on a tour of the most glamourous haunts of Hollywood’s rich and famous while simultaneously revealing this woman’s most private thoughts and desires.
As consumers of movies, music, and television, the many members of the public are fascinated by the inner worlds of celebrities. This enthrallment could possibly originate in the assumption that people of wealth and power do not have problems. This poignant collection wholeheartedly rejects that notion with the humanization of our protagonist.
Through the gallery-provided reading material, we soon learn that her name is Suzan. As a former Miss Colorado, she met Walker in Palm Springs three years ago. The two women immediately hit it off and Walker invited her to model for some paintings in preparation for Sunset. The artist then rented a home near the Sunset Strip for a day and Suzan acted out these scenes of leisure. Here, Suzan is playing the role of an aging actress and the viewer is witnessing a day in her life.
Through this cinematic career choice, the manufactured nature of this collection and its Hollywood setting, themes of moviemaking and the Los Angeles lifestyle easily come to mind. Here, Walker is playing into our expectations of the city’s stereotypical affluent woman. Even though we know this extravagance is all akin to movie magic, we still buy into the fantasy. Intrigued by this phenomenon, Walker explores it in depth and theorizes that human brain secretly yearns for a comfortable and luscious modus vivendi.
Piercing a hole in this picture perfect illusion, viewers might pick up on this character’s sadness through her absent facial expression. In nearly every work in this series, we see a woman in doubt and pain. Although she is surrounded by hair stylists and pool boys, her interaction with them is minimal and her eyes often appear glazed over. She is clearly thinking about somewhere else she would rather be. This faraway look is actually reminiscent of one seen in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881): in the middle of all the excitement of this get-together, we see a woman drinking a glass of water. Most of the other party-goers are chatting or looking at others in the scene. She is not. She is just staring into space, engrossed in her own thoughts.
Indeed, water, glass, and mirror symbolism is everywhere in this collection. We see it in the way the sunlight reflects off the pool and in the way the protagonist examines herself in the fitting-room mirror. This motif could be alluding to the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his own reflection in water. Given Hollywood’s obsession with physical appearance, the inclusion of this trope could be a statement on this harmful ideology.
In addition to Walker’s use of mirrors to reflect rampant narcissism and vanity in the entertainment industry, she also includes a wealth of windows and glass doors as a symbol of isolation. We see Suzan through these transparent barriers as she lifts weights by the pool [below] and watches television in her living room in 2017’s Study for Cooler. In these scenes, we catch glimpses of her, but we, perhaps representing the public, never share her space. This separation alludes to the need for privacy among celebrities, but also the intense feeling of isolation such isolation creates. Walker shows us a woman living in a proverbial gilded cage. Although the world presented to us in this exhibition oozes with opulence and splendor, we see the protagonist essentially constrained by the weight of fame’s inherent solitude and seclusion.
With her focus on arctypically feminine activities in this collection, such as shopping and tanning, Walker hints at the constraints of “performed femininity.” Coined by feminist philosopher Judith Butler, this term reveals the way gender is inextricably tied to behavior. As an actress, our leading lady is also seen taking on a role in her personal life, acting the way women stereotypically behave, a lack of freedom that can also lends itself to sorrow.
Adding to this complex inner landscape, our heroine is likely feeling adrift as purpose-driven work opportunities may not be as abundant as they were in years past. Although she may be in the “sunset” of her career, the more literal sunset here is arguably the most stunning and sublime time of day, especially in Los Angeles. Looking back now at Tinseltown, night has descended. However, the twinkling city lights simply cannot compete as she lights up the night.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.