Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Berlin, Germany
Cathy Wilkes’ exhibition ‘Mister So and So’ (all works 2001) looked like displaced and emotive detritus from an abandoned flea market. Evoking the moment when people are formally introduced, the title of the show emphasized how Wilkes wants us to take seriously the art of judging by appearances.
On display was a constellation of eleven elements which included a motley collection of collapsible card tables, a tatty banana lounge, a small oil painting (Red and White Blouse) and a framed postcard. Like a gathering of odd or kindred spirits, these works are appealing because of, rather than despite, their unassuming, unthreatening and unspectacular qualities. They don’t parody, are untainted by anything other than gentle irony, and apparently find it unnecessary to overwhelm or dazzle.
Anything positioned in a gallery invites or expects closer inspection, and Wilkes uses this to great effect. It is only when you become sensitive to her way of detailing works that a rewarding engagement with them really begins. Each of the objects she employs has been subjected to subtle artistic interventions. For example, Arm consists of a painted, rough, arm-shaped log to which she has affixed a perfectly square rod that looks like a finger and a branch. Equally intriguing is the way her works embody an eclectic and sophisticated - if highly subjective - digestion of a line of art historyn running from the readymade via Arte Povera and Agnes Martin to grunge installations.
The most compelling work in the show was Psychologist. Combining humour with enough of a dash of the grotesque to give it visual dissonance, the piece is almost literally a puzzle about the psychological significance of materials in sculpture. It comprises a scabby brown floral banana lounge at the base of which are arranged a pile of mostly upside-down jigsaw pieces, three scrunched-up plastic bags, a lacy bridal heart and an egg created from rough-cut swatches of cheap fabric. It could also be read as a fragmented portrait of an undisclosed fictitious psyche.
‘Mister So and So’ recalls the stuff lying around the space station in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972), where, with the help of alien intelligence, objects are discharged into the material world from the subconscious of overwrought minds. It’s a comparison that makes an analogy between the gallery and a haunted, orbiting, artificial world - perhaps too grandiose a link for Wilkes’ humble ways. It seems like a distortion to pin down any particular symbolic meaning or reference to the things she uses. If there is a story in these objects, it is present only as a sketch comprised of props without main characters.
Other works, such as the card table-based sculptures Our Misfortune, Untitled Table#1 and Mister Complex, are less dishevelled and equally witty, although cuter. Their tops are supports for Wilkes’ faint text drawings or collages, which transform them into either abstract portraits or signs for two sitters. Like tiny monuments to uneventful episodes, Wilkes’ recuperated and adapted leftovers signal an aesthetic based on the conviction that preciousness is not an arbitrary material measure, but rather a quality that the mind can invest in things. Transforming the used up and once loved into art isn’t new. However, Wilkes still manages to challenge presumptions about value and expectations of demonstrable labour in sculpture.