Cathy Wilkes can imbue a gallery with mood and atmosphere while barely filling the space. The Belfast-born, Glasgow-based artist’s recent exhibition of sculpture, painting, and drawing nestled along one side of a white-washed space. Significantly, it was lit only by natural light from the skylights. With its linear arrangement and low-hung works, the somber and mostly wall-based display evoked a blurry, slow-motion flashback: But to what, exactly? Wilkes makes art engrained with memories—of childhood, of people no longer with us, of past events that weigh heavy on the present. Her work can be hard to unpick, but she prefers not to say much about it, instead allowing viewers to find their own paths through her beautifully considered, tightly bound inquiries.
In this small but impactful show, Wilkes offered some clues to her thinking in a short accompanying text. Recalling her childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, she writes: “In my street, We lived in a blockade of inimical forces. One moved quietly and carefully so as not to disturb anything…In proximity to the violence and death, the propinquity resulted in introversion…We weren’t used to looking at things in what you would call, the light.”
Light, then, appeared as both metaphor and material, the unpredictable and often murky nature of Glasgow’s winter daytime hours perhaps a proxy for the haze that can descend on personal and societal memories. The fragility of our recollections and the ease with which even the most violently corrosive events can dissolve from collective memory was mirrored in the works—a barely-there wire mesh torso, a body rent asunder by an unspecified force; pigment and gum arabic paintings reminiscent of a snatched view through a steamed-up window, the colors drained; delicate, drypoint etchings on paper that called to mind a scan of a baby in the womb, or perhaps a coastline or a land mass, or maybe none of these things at all.
While the works themselves avoided any direct reference to a specific action or moment, the feeling of trauma, of current psychological scars caused by past physical violence, was keenly felt—particularly in two delicately frantic line drawings of a person’s head cocooned in their hands. Yet the intimacy and ordinary humanity of these slight but emotionally sturdy works meant that light, rather than darkness, was in the ascendant, that a kind of everyday beauty, in part expressed through simple materials such as cloth, cardboard, and wire, reigned over the ugliness of the past.
Together, the works in this precisely executed arrangement acted out a strangely compelling, silent drama. It seemed as if Wilkes was attempting to reflect a moment in time in order to come to terms with it—or perhaps she was just “quietly and carefully” trying to shed some light.