Women in the 21st century are masters of disguise. A dynamic working women is a good daughter one minute, a sexy partner the next, and then a shoulder to cry on. This is not dissembling, but the reality of the many roles arising from modern living—a kind of liberation from expectation and enforced roles which offers freedom to have control in different spheres.
But with that come the demands of complex shape-shifting; navigating the needs of self, others, and situations; confusing and liberating at the same time. This, while holding on to a clear sense of self, could prove to be the defining challenge for women in this age, and Katie Orton is grabbing it with both hands.
Having graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2005, Orton set up Zug fanzine, became a director of The Embassy in Edinburgh, exhibited at the first Athens Biennale, Edinburgh’s RSA, Collective Gallery, The Embassy, and most recently at Generator Projects in Dundee. Her work has been bought by serious collectors, and she was recently discovered as leading a ‘double-life’ in the cleaning business with her own company, ‘Green Rooms Urban Eco-Cleaning Services’. ‘Cleaning suits me’, she says. ‘It’s cathartic. My body’s engaged in very physical labour, but my head’s free to think. It’s fun to play about with your roles in life too. As a cleaner, you have to be unassuming and quiet. As an artist there’s a lot of assertiveness and self-promotion.’
Orton’s work expresses the fractured condition of modern life with wit and exuberance. Cubist lessons of multiple perspectives are employed with renewed vigour through her female lens. ‘Waitress’, 2007, is a large-scale sculpture made from intersecting sheets of MDF. The silhouetted torso is supported by an arm holding a hair-dryer aimed at the head, which balances a tray, on which the strip of a face is perched. Getting ready for the outside world, bearing a precarious tray, and looking out with one eye, sums up the juggling act of waiting tables and women at work. But the body is strong—bold decorative markings indicate almost-Amazonian brawn.
‘Proud Cleaner’, 2007, is a cardboard sculpture taught with energy. The sketchy qualities have something of a cartoon-like Quentin Blake character—a fishnet-stockinged figure steps to the next job with Hoover leads and adaptions trailing in rhythmic curves. There is sassiness, efficiency, comedy and respect in the acrylic and marker-pen-daubed model.
Being on one’s feet so much, a break might be in order. Which is exactly what Orton represents in her painting, called simply, ‘Break’, 2007. This collaged representation of domestic interior and outside walls shows a woman lying naked across a dining room table, touching herself with one hand, while the other dangles down, holding the end of a disconnected plug.
Ruth Hedges is a writer and radio producer based in London
Katie Orton, Glasgow’s Project Room, 29 March–5 April 2008