Caroline Walls’s New Exhibition — Named for a Joy Division Song — Explores the Artist’s Ideas About Intimacy and Ambiguity

Mystery and accessibility, our public and private identities, what we can only glimpse of other people and what we may not even know about ourselves — these are the puzzles at the heart of Caroline Walls’ first solo show, Touching from a Distance, at the James Makin Gallery in Melbourne. “I’m interested in how much we reveal of ourselves to the outside world, and how this can create or diminish connection and intimacy between ourselves and others,” says the New Zealand–born, Melbourne-based Walls, whose large oil paintings of striped, billowing fabric both contrast with and complement her more figurative works of the female form. Taken together, her oil paintings inhabit a space somewhere between abstraction and representation, exposing different regions of the same thematic territory: emotional intimacy. “The paintings featuring female forms are more literal in their reflection on human connection as they capture an exact moment in time between people, which I think has allowed me to humanize the narrative more – and in turn I think this has given greater context to the more abstracted works which are more ‘coded’ in their exploration of love and longing,” she says.

“In the draped, fabric works I’m not looking to give too much away — there is a sense of concealment or ambiguity,” Walls explains, “which I hope allows the works to reveal themselves slowly to the viewer. Through this veil-like fabric I don’t intend to simply cover or reveal; the draping stands in for the female form. Although abstracted, I hope to create an inherent feeling of presence in the fabric works whilst also leaving them more open to interpretation by the viewer.”

Walls’ work enacts what it’s about, embodying and activating its subject matter. Presence is both a subject and an effect here, and the scale of these paintings is inextricably part of that. The fabric paintings — at nearly 6 feet tall — become immersive when experienced in person. (If you’re in Melbourne, go!). “I like the idea of enveloping the viewer into the scene, so painting the draping, striped fabrics at large scale allows me to do this in a really physical sense,” says Walls. On the other hand, she adds, “the figurative works are a touch smaller in scale which I hope adds to their sense of intimacy and urgency — like looking through a window into someone else’s fleeting moment.” (The show’s title references a lyric in Joy Division’s “Transmission,” encompassing ideas around intimacy and ambiguity.)

Walls has “always been naturally drawn to a warm, neutral palette of creams, earthy tones, midnight blue-blacks,” instinctively using the tones over the years. But the golden ochres in this show are a first for her, intended to evoke the warmth of an embrace and “create a real sense of luminosity and vibrancy… that glowing, almost otherworldly feeling.” Meanwhile, her choice of color has greatly influenced the composition of these works. “I think the non-mimetic palette I’ve used — given its reductive, almost monochromatic nature — has also allowed me to highly consider the composition of the pieces. I’ve cropped the figures and forms and extended them beyond the bounds of the frame to underscore that sense of intimacy and draw the viewer into the visual scenes.”

While the draped stripes call to mind Trix and Robert Haussmann’s trompe l’oeil furniture, that wasn’t specifically on Walls’ mind, though she’s “really drawn to dynamic interior spaces, furniture, textiles, and the dimensionality of sculptural forms which is evident in their work.” And Walls’ newer paintings explore volume and depth through shading, translucent oil paint, and the building up of layers on the surface of the canvas over longer periods of time.

Walls also drew inspiration from the “luscious drapery found in Renaissance figurative art” and the way it “can feel as critical to the artworks as the human figures themselves.” For Walls, it stokes curiosity “about this deep connection we as humans have with fabric and cloth, even if we don’t think about it in a critical sense – it’s something we use and interactive with on a daily basis – we wear it, we sleep with it, and live with it throughout our homes – so it has an intrinsically intimate value to it.” And fabric also acts more metaphorically – “the idea that intimacy and trust are part of the fabric of relationships, or love is part of the fabric of family, and with this in mind I have explored the use of fabrics and draping as the symbolic thread of these artworks.”

The allusions in Walls’ work, to other art and art forms, underscore not only the notion of human connection and interaction but the way those connections aren’t bound by the moment, how they’re “non-linear – they flow freely, fluidly between people, transcending time and place, parallel to our own inner monologues,” she says. “In many ways I might consider this collection a series of intimate or emotional interior landscapes.” It’s a vulnerable thing, making interiority visible, but the potential for understanding, these paintings insist, is worth the risk.