Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cathy Wilkes - Our Misfortune

Our Misfortune, 2001
Fabric collage, wood parts, tables
Dimensions Variable

Cathy Wilkes (born 1966) is an artist from Northern Ireland, who creates video installations. She is a 2008 Turner Prize nominee.

Cathy Wilkes was born in Belfast. She attended Glasgow School of Art 1985–1988, and took an MFA at the University of Ulster 1991–1992. She was a Fine Art sculpture tutor at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design 1996–2000.

Wilkes lives and works in Glasgow.

Our Misfortune 2001 (detail)
Fabric collage, wood parts, tables
Dimensions Variable

The first sign that, for Cathy Wilkes's solo show, we are in the realm of the poetic and spatial rather than that of time and narrative, is the lack of dates for the exhibition. "July" is all the poster says; "throughout July" whispers the press release. It's a hint that we should leave conventional ways of marking time and describing experience at the gallery door.

More than half of the gallery isn't in use. On one side of the room sits an assortment of distressed-looking tables, a battered old camp bed and some small, peaceful paintings. An area of flooring has been cut away to reveal floorboards, gouged in places, scribbled on. It could be the corner of a musty old junk shop.

Gradually, the logic of the installation begins to reveal itself, emotionally rather than intellectually. The cut-away floor is some kind of stage - you know that only because you have a should-I-stand-on-it moment of self-doubt. The floor is inscribed with its own history, layers of it, unfathomable to us now: markings to do with past exhibitions, measurements for things we can no longer see.

The furniture is cheap, tatty, its veneers peeling away, snapped off in places, hinting at another history. To these forlorn-looking items Wilkes has added enigmatic touches: simple metal structures and faces made from cutout bits of paper adorned with tiny scraps of felt. The style of these faces nods to Picasso (the eyes are like jigsaw pieces, the ears like musical notes), and they are elegiac in mood. The paintings have as layered a surface as the wooden furniture, but are embellished with pie charts and symbols that look as if they are from the periodic table. One simply says "our misfortune" and it's hard to resist seeing this as a key to the whole exhibition - a mourning for the passing of time, the melancholy of loss. On the camp bed, a cracked board is marked by lettering we can no longer read, and a tie sticks out from beneath it. Suicide, you can't help thinking, but you don't know why. Richly suggestive, elliptical, and movingly understated, Wilkes's work makes you feel time, see mood, touch space.


Our Misfortune 2001 (detail)
Fabric collage, wood parts, tables
Dimensions Variable

In July 2001 I invited Cathy Wilkes to make a show at Cubitt Gallery, London. Cathy had recently completed a solo show at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow and - as she often does - proposed remodelling the piece for the Cubitt space. 'Our Misfortune' opened in London on 30 September 2001.

I had always thought that to present Cathy's work at this time in London was charged with a certain resonance. Her sensibility and working methods were distinct from the plethora of slick and poppy sculpture and painting that had followed so naturally the brittle sophistication of London art production in the late 1990s. At this very particular time - so soon after the events of September 11th - the downbeat tone and autumnal melancholy of 'Our Misfortune' chimed with the prevailing mood of shock and confusion. A reappraisal of a value system shot - if only temporarily - to pieces.

Our Misfortune consists of an arrangement of found and made objects: folding card tables, their tops cracked and peeling; a rusting sun lounger; several small, almost monochrome paintings; and one colourful abstract/geometric figurative painting. The tables carry small hand-crafted wooden sculptures: little broken wooden armatures that end bluntly and barely manage to stand up, a rectangular box shape and a collapsed wooden frame limply measure space. On one table a fabric collage manages to conjure a piece of nougat, a jigsaw puzzle and a face. The sun lounger sports a gentleman's tie decorated with a cubist Picassoesque pattern.
Polly Staple

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