Ella Walker’s Dynamic Paintings Offer a Feminist Update on Medieval Frescoes

Ella Walker cleverly combines medieval allegories with the woes of contemporary womanhood in her flamboyant, large-scale, fresco-like paintings. The London-born and Manchester-based artist creates shallow, flatly pigmented backgrounds and highly texturized foregrounds. With chalk, pencil, ink, and tempera, she depicts female figures with medieval flourishes. Her work is dynamic, theatrical, and pointed.

Queen of the Night (2022), for example, features a chorus of three crouching women who gaze upon a faceless puppet with a hole at her heart. The fine linework and the women’s faces, seen in profile, evoke the styles of medieval frescoes. Throughout her compositions, Walker mingles period dress with contemporary shoes, undergarments, harnesses, and jewelry. She uses unstretched canvas and hangs her paintings against wooden armatures, a choice that evokes stage backdrops. The artist makes herself a central character in her dramas, painting her likeness into complex tragicomedies.

Walker’s new show, “Theater of Virtues and Vices” at Casey Kaplan, establishes the artist as an ascendant painter and firmly delivers upon her stellar, sold-out solo booth with the gallery at Frieze London in 2021. The new exhibition, which features eight dazzling, fresco-like paintings and two smaller works, offers a stateside introduction to Walker’s practice — her first outing, presented by London’s Huxley-Parlor, closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Walker, who completed her BFA at Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and a postgraduate degree at the Royal Drawing School in 2018, is represented by Casey Kaplan.

Across all 10 pieces, Walker reconceives the vices and virtues (hope / despair, charity / envy, faith / idolatry, temperance / anger, and prudence / folly) that decorate Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel (1305) in Padua, Italy. The famous fresco series illustrates the life of Christ, from the annunciation to the Virgin Mother to Christ’s ascension from the grave to heaven following his crucifixion.

Walker distorts her own characters, often merging them with other figures and garments or presenting them in abject positions. In Troupe (2022), for example, one female figure appears as a cortored, damned woman — she wears red lingerie, which exposes the cuts along her body, and her face is obscured. The background characters wear bodices that become inseparable from their flesh or extensions of their bodies; these features evoke the grotesque style popularized during the medieval period.

In Folly (2022), three female figures stand erect, with a suffering woman at the center. The composition evokes the idea of ​​the pharmakon, or a scapegoat whose banishment, suffering, and death provide an opportunity for the rest of her community to bond. “Theater of Virtues and Vices” is full of such brutal parables. Walker engages with art historical styles and forms, inserting her own voice and vision to generate new depictions of women and the limited roles society has offered them, from the medieval age through today.

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