Our Misfortune, an installation created by Cathy Wilkes at Glasgow’s Transmission in 2001, included a distressed card table, on top of which sat a face, rendered in scraps of paper, felt and, for eyes, two jigsaw puzzle pieces cut from cloth.
This detail cannot be said to be representative of Wilkes’ work, nor can a single element in a single work be regarded as a cipher for the decryption of Wilkes’ practice. It might, though, serve as a starting point, a little clue or hint to acquaint and inform.
First, it is a face for looking at. More complex than the arrangement of lines and dots recognised even by newborns as human, it is an unavoidable commonplace, irresistible, a thing that can be grasped in the midst of an installation that elsewhere renders the familiar unfamiliar.
Second, it is a face that looks at us. A face that is mask-like, clownish, an anti-portrait, obscured, the thick flat line of its mouth rendering it mute. Then there are those crafted puzzle pieces—a blunt, obvious, knowingly humourous challenge to the viewer to ‘solve’ the work. But those, too, are self-reflexive, an intimation that while it is work that asks to be unpicked and picked over in a bid to understand the whole, it is also work that, in some sense, looks back at us with puzzled eyes. This particular arrangement of objects—a hinting, though not quite mocking, one—alerts us to the fact that Wilkes is engaged in investigation, in thinking aloud.
And this thinking is forever looping. Every time one lights upon an aspect of Wilkes’ work, hoping to find something to hang on to, an opposing possibility presents itself. But instead of a binary opposition between two concrete ideas, Wilkes offers a continuum, an ebb and flow of thought.
Even selecting a term to describe a given piece of work by Wilkes is problematic —they are undeniably installations, made from paintings, sculptures, objects found and altered, and each element demands attention. And yet the whole is all, rendering the installation a discrete, sculptural form, a structure bound unto itself with a near-tangible connection made between things in a place. When faced with Wilkes’ work, you will find yourself both kneeling on the gallery floor engrossed by detail and pressing yourself against the gallery wall in a bid to appreciate the whole.
This to-and-fro holds true when it comes to attempts to interpret, too. In ‘Non Verbal’, a piece commissioned for Selective Memory, first seen in the Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, then reprised at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (see page 52), it is clear that Wilkes is concerned with the body, both human and the body politic. A hi-tech pushchair points both to the presence and absence of a child, and, perhaps, to the commodification of motherhood; two mannequins are doubly fetishised, not even half-dressed, but their faces are hidden behind two paintings, another puzzle, another invitation to look, another looking-out.
For her show at Inverleith house in 2002, Wilkes also focussed on the body. Two assemblages of wooden slats and tea trays—rickety approximations of nudes, reclining or in disarray, straddling the line between representation and abstraction— were matched with a series of paintings which repeatedly reconfigured Umberto Boccioni’s ‘Unique Form of Continuity in Space’, turning an inhuman futurist minotaur, male and animal, into a meditation on the body, female and human. This web of ideas is so complex, and offers so many possible points of entry into the work, that the cumulative effect is akin to witnessing a train of thought, plucked from a mind and placed in a gallery, the physical manifestation of a fleeting flash of awareness, but one that is bound up with those that have gone before—a part and a sum of parts.
The same might be said of the installation at 116, Sword Street, Glasgow, created in 2004 in an abandoned hairdressing salon. But, while containing elements later revisited for ‘Non Verbal’—black cotton threads, broken crockery, that pushchair —the earlier work is inextricable from its context, bleeding into its surroundings to the extent that the building’s decay and interventions made by Wilkes were at times indistinguishable. Looking at the Sword Street show in isolation, or in concert with the Transmission exhibit, where the gallery floorboards were deformed into a stage, most would immediately peg Wilkes as an artist who responds directly to the context in which her work is shown, with the possibility of transferring her work into a conventional gallery space inconceivable. But look to ‘Non Verbal’, or the Inverleith House installation, and the reverse is true—these are works so completely contained that is hard to imagine their assembly, or, even, a time before their existence.
None of this is to say that Wilkes makes work that is deliberately impenetrable, nor that she glibly attempts to mystify by switching tactics. Rather, it appears her method prefigures the experience of her audience. In a recent email conversation, Wilkes identified the importance to her of the act of installation, in coalescing ideas, or, better, modes of thought, hinting that to view one of her installations is indeed to catch her thinking aloud, about certain things, at a certain time, in a certain place. If so, it is possible to glimpse the heart of Wilkes’ work, as apparent obfuscations fall away to reveal a direct attempt to communicate, one that honestly acknowledges the impossibility of possessing knowledge of other minds, but that is at once predicated on the assumption that, through her gestures, arrangements, sculptures, texts and paintings, we can become intimate with an artist thinking, if not with her thoughts.
The solution to the puzzle posed by Wilkes’ work is, then, the understanding that there is a puzzle in the first place. Her installations are like an ouroboros, or a Gordian knot with no Alexandrian solution—who would know where to make the cut but Wilkes herself? And they are, too, the opposite: generous, open systems into which we are invited by Wilkes and given, inevitably, free reign to wander.
This last contradiction, if it is a contradiction, is what makes Wilkes’ work irresistible, all-consuming. In repelling and attracting the viewer in equal measure, in combining the esoteric with the exoteric, work made by Cathy Wilkes holds a mirror up to itself, and to the viewer, and to the artist herself.
Jack Mottram is a Glasgow-based art writer
Claire BarclayLouise Hopkins: It seems to me that one of the things you try to approach in your work are stages of knowledge and innocence, especially in relation to the experience of being a child versus being an adult. One of the things about childhood is learning to take risks—and how to calculate risks. So I was wondering if there were some parallels there?
Claire Barclay: I’ve always been keen to explore this in relation to making my work, I suppose I’m interested in the contradictions and the parallels which are present in the relationship of child to adult. Perhaps because the process of making work is subconscious to an extent. I’m not aware necessarily of having a very rational goal in mind. And maybe it’s something to do with that climate you’re working within, that allows you to be more open to ambiguity and blurring the division between childhood and adulthood. The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ idea of going to places that society segregates as a domain for the child, but with the experience of an adult.’
Interview published in Claire Barclay, Ideal Pursuits, exhibition catalogue DCA 2003
Claire Barclay’s sculpture sets up spaces in which everything is potentially also something else. The complex, human-scale structures she builds with her work make places for the viewer (and the viewer’s imagination) to hide, child-like, waiting for something to start to make sense. When it does, it is often with the irrational logic a child might use to seek understanding of the world: if you have only someone else’s explanation to help differentiate between the levels of unlikelihood of encountering an elephant, a dinosaur or a gruffalo in the back garden, then limitless possibilities open up.
Children understand things differently. They exist, the surrealists would tell us, naturally in the realm of the ‘marvellous’, a state (otherwise achieved through the use of drink or drugs, in mental illness or through exposure to surrealist art) in which reason is suspended and the border between reality and unreality easily crossed. It is a zone of total visual and conceptual freedom, in which, balanced off-balance, the rational mind is subordinate to the imagination.
A child accepts incongruity because, when first learning about the world, everything in it is strange. Barclay recaptures this feeling—walk in to her work for the first time and it all seems incomparably odd. By the time you walk out, there’s a rightness to the world she has created for you to inhabit, that is undeniably there, even if you can’t quite put it into words.
In late 2005, Claire Barclay made two major solo exhibitions in Britain—Foul Play at doggerfisher in Edinburgh in August and Silver Gilt at Stephen Friedman in London in October. Typically, though the works in the exhibitions and the atmospheres they created were very different, they shared points of contact in the repetition of the forms, materials and ideas used. Separately, and still more powerfully together, they worked an insidious magic on the eye and the mind.
Foul Play, characteristic of Barclay’s mature style, brought objects together into a loose structure which both embraced and entrapped the viewer. Much is made in all writing about Barclay’s work of the artist’s response to the space in which her work is shown, and for Foul Play, as has become her primary mode of working, she finished the work in situ, camping for a time by day in the gallery to determine the way that her work would eventually make an encampment within it. The forms of the final sculptures did respond to doggerfisher’s space, poking up into the skylights, balancing at odd angles which dramatised the suppressed irregularity of the just-off-square gallery. More importantly, they created their own world, positioning the viewer exactly where the artist wanted them, at the sharp end of an assembly of objects about to strike.
Foul Play brought together various forms and materials familiar within Barclay’s practice. Planed and tensioned oak beams, animal hide, brass, horn, silk-screened fabric and turned metal were manipulated with breathtaking skill. There was an order to the way in which each part of the installation moved towards meaning. First the materials themselves, seductive and repulsive in equal measure, and equally alien and familiar. Then the forms—there was a vague familiarity in the way the green baize lined one of the oak beams, an understanding of the tension under which a strip of hide placed another. Finally language, palpably absent from the actual installation but for me impossible ultimately to repress. The metal elements spoke to me of ‘tooled metal’, a phrase which I am even now not sure is correct for the process used to fashion the gun barrel-like forms, one suspended, one standing at ease in the space. The phrase became united in my mind with the forms, the sense they engendered of machine-made machines, their parts fitting together with the snug precision of a ‘well-oiled shotgun’, an image summoned by a well-remembered combination of words often read. These two phrases, conjured by the work, became inextricably entwined with it as I spent time in it, the whole exhibition gathering the conceptual momentum of a gun about to go off.
Language, it has been pointed out before, most notably by Francis McKee (text for ‘Take to the Ground’, The Showroom, 2000), is important in Claire Barclay’s work. McKee notes the deliberate punning of several of the titles the artist uses for her exhibitions (he analyses ‘Take to the Ground’, but there is a similar associative richness in Silver Gilt ) and contrasts this with the lack of language ascribed to individual works, which remain untitled. McKee observes that Barclay’s works both ‘evade any figurative definition’ in the form of titles, and ‘are equally difficult to describe’. He concludes that ‘there is never a simple cognitive relationship between a form and a meaning’.
The complication of the conventional tie between form and meaning (or word and meaning or image and meaning) is one of the chief missions of the surrealist marvellous, one of the great imaginative talents of any small child and, it seems to me, one of the fundamental operations of Claire Barclay’s work. The artist’s repetition and reworking of objects within individual sculptures and from one sculpture to the next, makes them her own. Sometimes, as for me with Foul Play, fragments of language may attach themselves, unbidden, to the objects along the way, at other times, it is the object—or the form or material that gives it life—that floats free and rises to the top of the mind somehow to exemplify or animate the work. The structures in Silver Gilt, for example, were anchored in the space by two linked silver rings which clung, barnacle-like, to the plate glass window at the front of the space. They are for me, together with the resistant, shiny perfection of the turned brass bowls, the first point of recall for that combination of works. Barclay has spoken a few times of exhibitions as ‘pauses’ in the development of her visual language, and this sense of her sculpture as collections of objects captured in a rare moment of rest from the exhausting business of coming into being seems pertinent.
Claire Barclay’s crafting and manufacture of seemingly endlessly ambiguous objects, poised at the point of several meanings at once, turns around her ability to exploit the potential of objects and fragments of objects—the forms and materials from which they are constructed—to continue to want to mean something even in the most obscure circumstances. In each new situation, the artist’s objects continue to signal meaning, from the feeble traces of signification attached to them or objects in some way similar to them in the real world, to the rich complexity of their position in the visual world of the artist. Barclay’s oak beams are reminiscent of parts of a bed, a loom, a screen, a long bow, a snooker cue, as well as oak structures in other works already made or still to come. They are agents of metamorphosis, things which have more or less of a relationship to perceived reality, dependent on how you want to look at them. In this, Barclay’s work recalls that of both Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, two other master manipulators of objects. They, like Claire Barclay, build visual languages around the repetition, manipulation and mutation of forms and materials, subtly absorbing both objects and viewers into a universe entirely of their own making and utterly under their command.
Fiona Bradley is director of the Fruitmarket Gallery