The bittersweet brilliance of Lily van der Stokker
At first glance, the works on show at Lily van der Stokker’s new exhibition at London’s Camden Art Centre are striking because of their child-like innocence. Her murals fill entire walls with candy colours like the wallpaper of a nursery. An installation consisting of a kitchen unit complete with oven, sink, washing machine and cupboards has been painted all over with cartoon-like flowers and gingham patterns to look like a kid’s play kitchen.
But despite (or indeed because of) the bright themes there is an inescapable tension that fills the viewer with unease, as these homely items are exaggerated and hyperfeminised to raise questions about gender dynamics and domesticity. They also examine our relationship with the home as a place of sanctuary or confinement – the wall beside the kitchen is inscribed with the words “Do not like pandemics”.
Other works are obviously darker. A huge pastel blue wave, also containing flowers, bears the words “no progress” and “no improvement”. In another wall painting Stokker comments on the stigmatisation of women who choose to not have children, in which she writes about all her friends having babies and not wanting to talk about anything other than breastfeeding.
Born in the Netherlands, Stokker has spent the last three decades replicating elements of daily life, usually with saccharine sweetness, while at the same time challenging the conventional expectations of family life and the role of women in society. Her “non-shouting feminism” as she herself calls it, has led to commissions of large public works such as the Celestial Teapot in Utrecht, and counting John Waters and Viktor & Rolf as fans.
Interior and furniture design has historically been gendered. Consider the colours that once upon a time were used for a middle class home in the 19th century – the drawing room in light hues, where women would read books, play music and receive guests. Men on the other hand had smoking rooms and libraries furnished with dark leather chesterfields and deep mahogany wood. In fact, in the design of the home we can see the divide between genders like no other space.
This characterisation of masculine and feminine objects reflects the gender bias in the wider design industry, where traditionally women’s roles have been confined to crafts like sewing and weaving. Additionally decorative arts have often been snubbed by the “serious” art community. Van der Stokker inverts these stereotypes, blowing up “feminine” motifs, giving them neon hues and supersizing her murals so they are inescapable from sight.
Her spectacular, large-scale murals start out as paper drawings, and some of those are also on display here at Thank You Darling, demonstrating her talent for sketching and proportion. This exhibition is her first institutional solo in London and a great introduction to work she created between 1986 and 2021, which feels more relevant than ever now that we have been forced to seriously question our societies and established systems – economic, patriarchal and hierarchical.
Thank You Darling by Lily van der Stokker is on at Camden Art Centre, London until September 18, 2022.