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Issue 225

Cathy Wilkes Flickers in the Glasgow Darkness

A characteristically understated exhibition at The Modern Institute uses light and domestic materials to allude to inimical forces at play in the home

BY Helen Charman in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 06 DEC 21

It is approaching that time of year where light becomes something of a neurotic fixation for the inhabitants of Glasgow: is there any at all today? Can you find it before it leaves? Can you let it into your windows before it starts to dip and shy away? By the time Cathy Wilkes’s current exhibition at The Modern Institute closes, there will be days where it feels like the sun hasn’t risen at all. And yet the show relies upon it: the gallery in which the work is displayed uses no artificial light, trusting only the row of skylights in the roof to illuminate Wilkes’s works of sculpture, etching, painting and collage (all Untitled, 2021).

Cathy Wilkes
Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, 2021, pigment and gum arabic on pineapple cloth, 60 × 46 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

Light, of course, has many tricks, and it plays them in tandem with the exhibition’s ambiguous, amorphous materials, which twist away from fixed interpretation. Each of the three paintings – pigment and gum arabic over linen and pineapple cloth stretched painfully tight – seems, at times, to be changing its pastel hues, like oil reflected in a puddle, presenting in turn an abstracted seascape, then a humanoid face, then a translucent shape that looks like a child’s drawing of a ghost. The dry-point etchings, meanwhile, neatly framed and hung in orderly style, appear in one moment to be a hand resting on a steering wheel, in the next a hand cradling the head of a baby, then the head of a lover, then simply clutching something undefinable, perhaps even just thin air.

In the characteristically opaque text that accompanies the exhibition, Wilkes writes: ‘In my street, / We lived in a blockade of inimical forces. One moved quietly and carefully so as not to disturb anything.’ ‘I wanted’, she continues, ‘to be as small as an atom.’ The small and the everyday sit at the centre of the show, in uneasy unison with this articulation of a domesticity that is now in the past tense. The scraps of fabric used throughout are not luxurious: at least one looks like a repurposed dishcloth, another the texture and pattern of a school uniform. The reference points seem clear: the materials, often overlooked and discarded, which make up a home. But what of these inimical forces? The ‘proximity to violence and death’ that propelled the residents of this former place to ‘introversion’ is, in Wilkes’s words, the opposite of looking at things squarely and head-on, ‘in what you would call, the light’. Is that, perhaps, what this collection of work does – pulls something out of the darkness, transforms interiority into externality? 

Cathy Wilkes
Cathy Wilkes, Untitled (detail), 2021, cardboard, paper, wire and acrylic, 150 × 69.5 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

Yet, the exhibition does not illuminate indiscriminately. As the weather changes and the light flickers and moves, any certainties of interpretation falter. The specks of red on the floor and on the hand of a wire figure, previously a dead ringer for real blood, reveal themselves to be simply spots of fabric more scarlet than crimson, almost petal-like, an approximation of violence rather than its reality. In the conditions in which I saw it – greyish, intermittently cloudy, rain speckled – the exhibition’s shifting textures felt hesitant and melancholy, the fragmented sculpted figures at once compelling and unknowable. The final piece, a cardboard and paper head in pink and blue, looked to me like a misshapen rendering of a swimmer, stretched and distorted but recognizable by what could be a swimming hat, the disintegrating wire feet just behind it becoming the end of a disjointed body, not quite diving but flailing, being dragged by some invisible force. 

Cathy Wilkes is on view at The Modern Institute, Glasgow, until 22 January 2022.

Main image: Cathy Wilkes, Untitled (detail), 2021, soft ground and dry point etching on paper, 3 parts each 38 × 47 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, MOTHER STATE, is forthcoming from Allen Lane. She teaches in the English Studies department at Durham University.