Cathy Wilkes, a 2008 Turner Prize nominee, has raised eyebrows with her highly charged arrangements of commonplace items and personal artifacts. Formally precise and essentially diaristic, her work employs a difficult and coded visual language that succeeds in exerting a strong psychological pull, creating shared experience from isolation. Her archetypal approach to the rituals and banalities of daily life—the humiliations, disappointments, and brutalities—demonstrates the power behind what she calls the undefined “ancient force” of history and memory. Her work is so compelling that she represented Scotland at the 2005 Venice Biennale and will represent the United Kingdom in 2019. In 2017 she was awarded the inaugural Maria Lassnig Prize.
Wilkes’s recent exhibition at MoMA PS1, her largest American museum show to date, presented 50 works from the last 20 years, some repurposed and recombined to confound narratives of artistic development. Wilkes also dismissed the typical framing and supports of exhibition display in favor of direct interaction, with the intention of inviting viewers to wander through tableaux with borders as permeable and messy as life itself. The space at PS1—a Romanesque Revival building from 1892, which served as the first school in Long Island City, Queens, until 1963—was particularly apt for Wilkes’s explorations of memory, accretion, time, process, chance, and change. This institution where children were taught and controlled by adults also underscored how her sculptural environments often examine the sensibility of the child vis-à-vis the world of adults.
This emphasis on the child’s experience is unusual in modern and contemporary art, though there are (male) artists of key importance to the development of avant-garde practice whose aesthetic was inspired by the directness, naiveté, and freshness of children’s art, including Matisse, Picasso, Heckel, Miró, Masson, Klee, Dubuffet, and Appel. (Wilkes is also a painter, and her environments may include one or more small- to medium-size abstract paintings on canvas.) Unlike these artists, however, her aesthetic is not that of the child: on the contrary, her compositions prominently feature unprepossessing and/or dirty objects that most children would never use in an art presentation. And yet, in their presence, one feels an empathy for the situation of children who have to make do, who need to improvise as they attempt to come to terms with a world they have no control over and that they can only partly understand.
Though deliberately vague and open-ended, Wilkes’s work is clearly about marginalization, about the everyday situations of the downtrodden, the voiceless, and the dispossessed. It is worth noting that she was born in Belfast in 1966 and has lived and worked in Glasgow since she began her studies at the Glasgow School of Art. She delves deeply into personal experience to create her work; her coming of age in Belfast, a city considered less than half a century ago to be one of the most dangerous in the world, helps to explain her feelings of deep kinship with the forgotten and the have-nots. Nor is she is shy about exploring what is deemed ugly, both in terms of form and content.
Wilkes, who is reticent about her work, constructs installations that amount to a form of abstruse visual poetry, which take one in different directions depending on how one reads the constituent parts and the links between them—if one succeeds in finding such connections. This requires a particular form of dedication, because Wilkes’s work is very unorthodox. Although her installations stop time, they will not arrest every viewer in his or her tracks. In fact, most of us would ignore some of the key components in her ensembles had they not been placed within the quasi-sanctified domain of the art gallery. Spotted by the curb or at the flea market, these things—as Wilkes presents them—would undoubtedly make us turn our heads and walk away. Chipped, discolored, worn thin, broken, and often encrusted with the residue of liquids, or denser matter, these heavily used items touch on the abject, tied to the intimacies of the kitchen, the workshop, and the body. This embrace of soiled items as an expressive medium links Wilkes to a range of predecessors, including Joseph Beuys, Daniel Spoerri, Edward Kienholz, Bruce Conner, Tetsumi Kudo, Paul McCarthy, and Tracey Emin, but her sensibility is different—there is no braggadocio and certainly no machismo here, only an honest confrontation with reality. Grime is tied to life, like it or not, no matter how much of our lives we might spend keeping uncleanliness at bay. While much highly valued recent art sparkles and shines (the sculpture of John McCracken, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Wim Delvoye, or Takashi Murakami comes to mind), Wilkes explores different avenues. Judging by her work, a seemingly germ-free situation amounts to a sterile state of affairs.
Rejecting sleek production values, Wilkes aspires to humility. She places her sculptures directly on the floor—only the slimmest of plinths appears in rare cases, just to keep a sculpture standing. Her tableaux are not cordoned off, so her objects inhabit the same space as our own (though at PS1, guards kept people at a safe distance, preventing, more often than not, viewers from really connecting with what they were looking at). In making these choices, Wilkes evokes the direct appeal of Renaissance tableau sculptures by Niccolò dell’Arca and Guido Mazzoni, minus the hyperreal pathos. These earlier orchestrations of human bodies, a form of dramatic theater rendered in fired terra cotta, reenact biblical scenes in decidedly earthy terms. Wilkes goes further in her installations; her dilapidated objects play a crucial role in providing an environment for the figures to interact in scenes steeped in poverty, solitude, incomprehension, and alienation. Her social and psychological realism brings to mind certain paintings by the brothers Le Nain, who depicted the marginalized in 17th-century France.
Significantly, Wilkes’s tableaux remain in flux, constantly subject to reconfiguration. At PS1, works drawn from different collections were combined and edited in unprecedented ways to form new and larger, cross-pollinating ensembles. Orchestrated for this particular occasion and setting, they extracted new potential from the raw material. This was true of the installation with two female shop mannequins, a stroller, a very large and flat square metal tray with raised edges (filled with various items, including a small gray cardboard box in one of its corners), two soiled plastic bowls, two plastic dispenser bottles, and a television set on a glass stand—all arranged on the floor in a grid-like formation. While the metal box, which resembles a derelict, abandoned play area, stressed the horizontal, the mannequins behind it articulated two powerful verticals framing the mute Hitachi television. But what does it all mean? The mannequins turn away from each other to face in opposite directions. Do they exemplify alternative choices? One is nude, while the other wears a white motorcycle helmet and sheer pantyhose reaching up to her navel. The helmeted figure appears to approach the empty stroller, ready to seize its handles at any moment. Is she contemplating motherhood and its attendant risks? That would, somewhat playfully, explain the helmet. Parenthood is a gamble, particularly now, with the fraying of the middle class and the revolutions within the job market—a fact that explains why birthrates are tumbling within certain ethnic, professional, and class groups. Female mannequins— those objects of desire to male Surrealist artists, which have also been redeployed in recent years by Isa Genzken—present an ideal of perfection few women can live up to, with their impossible proportions and hard, flawless bodies. Their nudity, among Wilkes’s other objects, would seem to underscore the objectification of women; in other words, how women—perceived by the heterosexual male—are so often first and foremost bodies to lust over.
The face, expressive of thought and feeling, is masked in both cases, covered by the helmet on one mannequin and by a stretched abstract painting on the other. The painting, consisting of stains on a white ground, suggests that the woman’s perspective is unknown and unknowable—an abstraction as far as we are concerned—or, conversely, that her view is blocked, and she thus heads into the unknown, going the wrong way. The television conjures the power of outside pressures (commercial, social, political, economic), but it is turned off. Are these women following the paths mapped out for them by society or ignoring those directives? The residue-stained vessels around them suggest women’s perceived status as vessels, waiting to be filled with the ideas and bodies of others, brain- washed (told what to do, buy, think, and love) and thus corrupted—soiled by what remains a fundamentally patriarchal society. Significantly, the helmet transforms the hose-wearing mannequin into a warrior, suggesting empowerment (though, speaking of soldiers, who obey orders without question, we can’t forget Demi Moore’s sexually explosive performance in Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane from 1997, which thoroughly adhered to heterosexual male fantasies). Wilkes’s svelte helmeted figure also brings to mind La motocyclette, a splendid short novel by André Pieyre de Mandiargues who frequented Surrealist circles, in which a woman takes off on her motorbike to spend time with her lover. Finally, there is the undeniable coldness and aloofness of mass-produced store mannequins, which, placed within the context of contemporary art, cannot fail to drag the sadomasochistic works of John de Andrea in their wake (woman as sex object; and when combined with a pillow, as chair; and when combined with a large plate of glass, as table—more variations are left to the viewer’s imagination). There is a performative aspect to Wilkes’s tableau, as if its elements were the neatly arranged spoils of a theatrical production. Her work, if I understand it at all, is about the impossibility of understanding others, despite the compulsion to judge them.
Untitled (2012) strikes a different, even more gripping chord. Using objects like poets use words, Wilkes magically establishes a mood around three small figures made of soft matter. Awkwardly stitched together by hand, they resemble 19th-century rag dolls, as well as the late-career fabric figures of Louise Bourgeois, with which they share a psychological charge. Do these figures dream of achieving the physical perfection of the store mannequins? In Untitled, the actors perform unmistakable roles. One, all in shades of pink, leans forward to wipe the face of a standing infant—to clean it or dry its tears. Two large buckets and a xylophone are placed on the floor near the mother and child—we read the larger figure as the mother, or maybe the big sister, because of the pink body and the bright red of the lips painted on the papier-mâché head. The other adult, possibly male, stands behind a soiled, kidney-shaped basin raised on a stand, ostensibly washing strips of cloth. His attempts appear ineffectual, even futile, however, as he lowers his head in a state of concentration or dejection and defeat, his wrists and hands hanging limp and a strip of cloth dangling from each forearm. These figures appear diminished, almost worn down by surrounding space, acting out a scenario about carrying on in the face of forces greater than ourselves—our common human plight. Isolated within emptiness, they are displaced and homeless. Wilkes is rightly concerned about the ravages caused by poverty, and working in the U.K., she knows something about political (as well as economic) refugees and about the intolerance and incomprehension, often amounting to a complete lack of empathy, with which such people are all too frequently met.
Untitled (Possil, At Last) (2013) features a man bending over, his face parallel to the floor; he crouches as if he were about to sit, with his legs spread wide apart. His head is as white as plaster, or death, and the sleeves of his short-sleeved shirt are empty, making him appear armless. A thin gray cloth hangs over his wire-thin legs. In front of him, a stool supports an empty glass beer bottle with a cork; three more old empty glass bottles are placed upright on the floor nearby. Behind him stand a girl and a boy, with heads as white as ghosts; panes of fabric hang over their bodies, suggesting miserable economic circumstances. Critics correctly see the ravages of alcoholism in this scenario—all too often arising in the wake of poverty or leading to it. This is a social problem with deep roots in the reality and popular imagination of Irish culture, as is true of malnourishment, suggested here by the flimsiness, bordering on transparency, of the bodies. One need only think of the Great Hunger of 1845–49, which forced one million people out of Ireland, many of them ending up in the U.S., where they were treated as the lowest of the low. (We have different scapegoats, these days.) Back in Ireland, another million people died of hunger during those awful years. With the ongoing dismantlement of the middle class and unraveling of social safety nets, extreme poverty looms large once again, both in the U.K. and the U.S. Wilkes confronts insidious, ordinary horror—political, economic, social, and psychological—often by indirection, but she is unafraid to force us to look at it head on, and in detail. There is no sweeping the dirt under the mat in her work.