16 April–8 June 2008, Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes
The enigmatic works of Cathy Wilkes are notoriously difficult to penetrate, a trait for which she has become well known, and one that has not hindered her burgeoning international profile. This exhibition—the most comprehensive of her career—is spread across the gallery’s three spaces and exudes a confidence that, despite the perplexing nature of her work, is refreshingly compelling.
In ‘Untitled’, 2008, several piles of dried bulrushes and pond reeds have been laid out on the floor, some covered by polythene sheets. Behind these stands a stack of terracotta tiles painted with a faint cross motif. In the solemn ambience of this dimly lit room the piles of reeds could be read as bodies, the stack of tiles as a headstone. Informed by events in her personal life, themes of death and loss recur throughout Wilkes’ work—this highly charged installation being perhaps one of the most explicit examples.
Next to this room is a gallery devoted to her paintings, the minimal installation giving each piece substantial breathing space. To each white canvas a ceramic saucer is attached, featuring loosely painted abstract daubs. Appearing more like sculptures than paintings, these works have the air of a bygone period, like some kind of Surreal, Dada-esque assemblages.
‘We Are Pro Choice’, 2008, is one of Wilkes’ most complex installations to date and—as is a common strategy—is adapted from an older piece of the same name. Its numerous constituent parts include a naked female mannequin sitting on a toilet, a towering wooden stepladder that has seen better days and an electric cooker covered in empty jars amongst other domestic ephemera. Many of the items here have been plucked directly from Wilkes’ own home—a dirty bowl placed at the mannequin’s feet once contained porridge, the remains of which are still clearly visible. Scattered on the ground, dried rose buds punctuate the cold grey gallery floor with dashes of vivid burgundy. On top of a large, bright yellow rectangle of unidentified material, several of the buds have been arranged by Wilkes into a heart shape. Each element of this tableau vivant has been very purposefully and precisely placed, and although formally compelling—the use of colour is particularly arresting—the installation as a whole overwhelms, and like much of Wilkes’ work frustrates any attempt to suggest a coherent narrative.
Through repetition, the recurrence of certain motifs and the reworking of individual pieces, an internal dialogue exists within Wilkes’ oeuvre. This self-reflexivity provides—to some extent—a point of entry to the understanding and interpretation of her work. However, in addition to being highly personal, this work is profoundly poetic, a fact that many commentators—in their pursuit of understanding—have overlooked. The task of the viewer is not to decipher it. Rather, subjective contemplation is welcomed. As Wilkes has said, ‘[there is] no need for someone to fully understand.’ By acknowledging the gulf that exists between herself and her audience, she invites a plethora of interpretations; although her work remains largely unfathomable, therein lies its strength.
David Trigg is an artist and writer based in Bristol