Cathy Wilkes’s dispersive installations are relationally orientated, but her practice is markedly different to those defined by Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics (1998). While confusing the boundaries between art and the everyday, Wilkes rarely attempts to communicate an essential point about art’s socio-political dimension. Rather, by imbuing all aspects of the exhibition-making process with equal and autobiographical relevance, the Glasgow-based artist’s show at the Gesellschaft für aktuelle Kunst (GAK) highlighted her expressive approach to installation art.
The exhibition was co-produced with the Kunstverein Munich, where – earlier in 2011 – Wilkes showcased a larger collection of new and old works. At the GAK, she purposefully stripped the show back to concentrate on a single sculptural tableau (Untitled, 2011) that was conceived in response to the recent death of her father. The artist’s subtle employment of negative space was arresting, enabling the gallery architecture to dramatize the somber theme and provoking comparisons with artists such as Isa Genzken and Sarah Lucas, not to mention the early 1990s slacker aesthetic of Karen Kilimnik. Whereas for these three artists the use of diverse materials and a lightness of touch provide comical effect, Wilkes’s junkyard-minimalism typically connotes the emotional condition of being weighed down by the world.
The exhibition’s central installation presented an anguished scene inspired by Old Testament narratives, comprising papier-mâché sculptures of two dark-skinned women and a boy. One of the female sculptures was topless – and, like a mannequin, nipple-less – and kneeled in a black mini-skirt, gazing skyward with her arms raised. The other woman appeared frozen in frantic action, mouth wide open. Next to them kneeled a boy closely inspecting a collection of pinecones and green pipe-cleaners. Other objects filled in the rest of the surreal scene: a metal plough, a water tap, two toy rabbits, electric kettles, an unfinished papier-mâché sculpture. The loaded metaphorical content and poverty-stricken drama of the work appeared to be manifestations of the biblically inspired lyrics of Billie Holiday or Robert Johnson. It also alluded to the types of Dust Bowl environments famously depicted by Walker Evans.
Wilkes’s inclusion of several abstract paintings (all Untitled, 2010–11) clearly contrasted with the main installation; however, they were united by their gloomy hues and a poetic treatment of materials. Having alluded to the work of Walter Sickert in Non-Verbal Installation (2005), which was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008, Wilkes’s paintings once again displayed her genuine fascination for Sickert’s seedy and obscured aesthetic, as well as his succinct application of paint. Whereas in the aforementioned work her paintings functioned more as readymades, here they underscored the emotive impetus of the exhibition.
Accompanying the three small abstract paintings in the final gallery space were two large, pink table arrangements, which acted as installations and contextual presentations. On one of the tables sat an unpainted papier-mâché sculpture of a baby with an oversized tongue, on its hands and knees in an entanglement of fine wire in which bits of porridge and small saucepans were embedded (Untitled, 2010). The other table – a museological arrangement of personal memorabilia, including Fisher Price toys, childhood drawings, a childhood poem by the artist’s brother, a Peanuts cartoon-strip from a newspaper, and two of her father’s pocket Bibles – more clearly revealed the autobiographical origin of the exhibition. Here Wilkes seemed to encourage the viewer to consider the installation as having been shaped by her own reflections on her childhood in Northern Ireland. As such, Wilkes’s artistic practice was related as a more complex extension of childhood play – progressing from shop-bought toys to life-size papier-mâché sculptures.
As both a personal expression and a type of Rorschach test, the exhibition gently persuaded viewers to decode its secret metaphors. Approaching the phenomenon of the exhibition as inherently performative and subjective, Wilkes drew attention to the gaps between the start of an art work – the artist’s inspiration – and its ‘end’: the temporal arrangement of objects in a gallery.