Cathy Wilkes

Inverleith House

Perched on a hill within Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden, Inverleith House overlooks the city and its cold architectural grandeur. Built in 1774, Inverleith was home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 1960 to 1984. Since then it has accommodated an impressive succession of contemporary art exhibitions, which have sometimes been suggestively complemented by displays drawn from its rich trove of botanical illustrations. In this instance Cathy Wilkes's mesmerizing multipart installation occupied only the gallery's ground-floor rooms. Yet any additional resonance it might conceivably have gained from the concurrent historical exhibition on the floor above seemed oddly but quite purposely muted. For it is a peculiar characteristic of Wilkes's deceptively unprepossessing installations that they quietly establish a seemingly airtight aesthetic microclimate almost entirely conditioned by the interrelationships of the work's constituent parts and their various historical accretions—literal, metaphorical, or metonymic—to the exclusion of everything else, including the work's site and even its actual or potential viewers, who are simultaneously seduced and held at bay by its bruised beauty and fragile but stubborn hermetism.

This particular installation consisted of two approximately symmetrical quasi-figurative compositions, each of which was made up of what was described in the accompanying literature as a “tableau vivant sculpture,” as well as a number of small works on canvas. A dilapidated off-white radiator stood near the middle of each of the two main ground-floor rooms, accompanied in both instances by a meticulous arrangement of thin, irregularly angled wooden batons, suggesting the disarticulated limbs of a supine, three-dimensional matchstick man, as well as a number of shallow metal serving trays, which, like the radiators, had clearly seen better days. Of the seven studiously scruffy little canvases in the show, one was a roughly symmetrical, abstract composition in black-and-white, another an elaborate graphic doodle of the word VALUE in faint pencil on a white ground. The five remaining partially colored drawings on canvas were offbeat, polymorphous perverse variations on Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, executed in a style that might have had a precedent had Sophie Taeuber-Arp ever been invited to fill in for Chic Young as illustrator of the Blondie comic strip.

That this icon of aggressive Futurist dynamism should attract the delicately downbeat attentions such of a connoisseur of stasis, if not of entropy, seems somehow less surprising when we recall that Boccioni's sculpture was produced the same year Duchamp invented the ready-made, obviously an equally important point of reference and departure for Wilkes. Unlikely as it may seem, Boccioni's dream of an art that would be “a matter not only of building objects that are enriched and renewed through the contribution of tactile knowledge and accidental vision, but of creating a plastic environment in,which the objects can develop all their emotive plastic potentiality” is not without relevance to Wilkes's humane reenvisioning of presumedly obsolete genres—she has in the past mischievously revisited portraiture, and there are recent intimations of a nascent interest in the still life. This aspiration is, however, just one strand in a painstaking reexamination and renewal of some ostensibly wayward or uncared-for shards of our common cultural detritus.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith