In London earlier this month, a painting by the Scottish artist Caroline Walker titled Threshold sold at Phillips for $1.1 million, a new record for the artist and over six times its estimate. The sale came just days after another work of hers, The Puppeteer (2014), set a record at Christie’s, selling for over $800,000.
The paintings are typical of Walker’s practice, depicting figures performing household tasks or lounging in backyards, often seen from afar, as though from the view of a stranger looking through a window. While images of women at work are age-old in the art historical canon, Walker has made a name for herself in the U.K. art gallery scene. Her work has risen in the market alongside that ascent. Artsy, an online aggregator of art sale data, recently cited Walker as a commercial force and, in 2022, 32 works by her sold at auction.
In London, Walker provided a case study for current market forces. At 41, Walker does not fit as either an emerging figure or as a late career canonical artist, two categories that account for a bulk of auction sales. Instead, attention around her work has appeared along a different, but still familiar archetype. Her work is tinted with feminist leanings and contains references to canonical male artists, features that adhere to a commercial formula predicated on the tastes of a small minority of collectors.
Critics have compared Walker’s paintings to male-dominated areas of the canon, like the Dutch old masters, and to artists David Hockney and Eric Fischl, figures well-known to U.K. and West Coast audiences. The latter two she cites as references, whose works “originate from the male perspective,” Jorg Grimm, an Amsterdam-based dealer who represents Walker, told ARTnews.
“She invites the viewer to consider a female perspective in art (that) might offer different insights into the embodied experiences of women to that of her male peers,” he added. In an online mention of Walker’s work, one of her collectors, Dutch developer Edwin Oostmeijer said that what appealed to him about her work is its “staged” aspect.
The female gaze, a tagline that is often attached to the viewpoint in Walker’s work, has become something of a commercial feature that often underpins market-ready paintings by women artists. Phillips specialist London-based specialist Olivia Thorton told ARTnews that private collectors are still “filling gaps” in their art holdings, as calls for addressing historical blindspots in art acquisitions has circulated since the onset of the pandemic. Specialists have speculated that the trend has driven interest in artists like Walker, whose perspective, according to Thornton, feels like an update on old norms.
Robert Manley, Phillips deputy chairman, oncedescribed this behind-the-scenes dynamic in a post-sale press conference, responding to a question about why New York figurative painter Emily Mae Smith, whose works were described by The New Yorker as “tartly feminist” were seeing rising values. Manley remarked that, for collectors, Smith’s work, depicting anthropomorphized broomsticks that are satirical plays on sex and gender, resonated in its campy references to Surrealists.
Painters like Hilary Pecis and Shara Hughes —who each make references to Fauvists like Henri Matisse and have attracted bidding from Asia— have each been the subjects of familiar buzz that underlies these investment-driven auction sales.
Hugo Cobb, a London-based specialist for Sotheby’s, told ARTnews that Walker’s appeal may be in that she’s responding to a thread in British figurative painting that’s long been gendered. “She’s taking on a very long tradition of quite macho art,” Cobb said.
Elsewhere in the London sales staged earlier this month, the male gaze still loomed large. A 1997 painting by British painter Lucian Freud titled Isobel Reading, which depicted his adult daughter, that Sotheby’s catalogue described as being reflective of the father of fourteen’s “paternal absence,” sold for approximately $20.5 million that week. Freud, whose work is repeatedly used as a value anchor in U.K. evening sales, was the subject of a recent auction record of $86 million at Christie’s in the fall.
Walker’s audiences appear to be growing abroad. In addition to the U.K. and Europe, Walker has buyers from the US and China. In other words, it’s a “global audience,” said Thorton — market-speak for an artist whose following spans the trade’s main commercial hubs. Meanwhile, her work is the subject of a current show titled “Women Observed” at Shanghai’s K11 Foundation, one outpost in an empire of commercial art spaces built by real estate developer Adrien Cheng that’s been described as akin to an art mall. This appeal to collectors internationally, Grimm said “is no exaggeration.”
But, despite the surging interest, Walker has not been “crashed” into the market, according to Cobb, as many emergent artists seeing record prices have been as of late. Last October, just before the K11 show opened, Sotheby’s saw demand for her work jump. At the auction house’s newly-minted “Now” sale, established to capitalize on demand for artists whose waitlists on the primary market are getting longer, Walker’s 2017 canvas Night Scenes sold £516,600 ($577,000), five times its estimate.
“Usually when there’s a major show coming up like that,” said Cobb, “The real rush on pricing comes just before the show opens rather than just after.
But auction sales have only loose correlations to what’s going on in the museum sphere. Whether or not U.K. institutions are addressing feminist issues explored by contemporary artists with real fervor remains less clear. Last November, The Art Newspaper raised the question of whether British museums are failing to respond to public discourses around violence against women in their programming by overlooking conceptual artists whose work focuses on the issue.
On the auction circuit, where figurative painting remains king in contemporary sales, these works tend to package social issues circulating in the institutional sphere more palatably. And because auction results are not metrics that correlate to institutional credibility, they’re commonly viewed as distractions from the milestones an artist reaches mid-career. A pivotal show in 2013 at London’s Pitshanger Manor may have put Walker on the map, but since then, according to Thorton, interest from collectors has been steady.
“I try not to pay too much attention” Walker remarked about the bidding attention earlier this month to ARTnews. “My focus is with the work.”
Cobb sees Edward Hopper in Walker’s works too, which may have helped her visibility in London. Hopper is currently the subject of a blockbuster, “Edward Hopper’s New York,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art and his work had been invoked in the early days of the pandemic weeks as a meme for feelings of widespread isolation. And in 2018, Hopper’s name became synonymous with financial trophy when his 1929 canvas Chop Suey sold for $91.9 million.
The comparison is code for another value-add here. There is, Cobb said, “a kind of glamour” in Walker’s work, similar to Hopper, where views of solitary figures seen from a distance, in nightime swimming pools and backyards of American suburbs, feel “very familiar to us.”
Despite Walker being active for over a decade, her work remains “sought after” amongst U.K. collectors, according to Thornton. What drives those results, according to her, is “unmet demand where collectors are finding it difficult to access works.”