View of “Cathy Wilkes,” 2011. Photo: Tom Little.

View of “Cathy Wilkes,” 2011. Photo: Tom Little.

Cathy Wilkes

View of “Cathy Wilkes,” 2011. Photo: Tom Little.

ON JULY 1, 1916, British and French soldiers charged the German front lines near the River Somme, expecting to hasten their victory in the Great War. Instead, the disastrous Battle of the Somme would become one of the bloodiest engagements in European military history, resulting in over a million dead soldiers. Though the losses were massive in scale, the burden was often borne by small communities whose entire populations of young men had been transplanted to the front (more than five thousand of those wounded on the first day of battle, for example, came from a single area in the province of Ulster, Ireland). The strategic payoff of the months-long massacre? The front line advanced a mere six miles.

This horrific event provides the thematic scaffolding on which Cathy Wilkes has arranged a powerful accumulation of objects at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, on view until the end of this month. Like so much of her earlier work, this untitled installation of standing figures, objects, and paintings complicates broad societal concerns with the enigmatic debris of personal experience (She’s Pregnant Again, 2005, for example, contemplated women’s reproductive rights and the abject features of motherhood). Here, for the first time, however, Wilkes engages traditions of war memorials and their museological counterparts, resulting in an exhibition that is as profoundly reflexive and as urgently relevant as any she has ever made.

The venue—the Carnegie’s Forum Gallery—is fairly small, and Wilkes’s installation gravitates toward one side of the space, so that the whole thing seems a bit lonely. Objects are arranged on three very low tables, which emphasizes their vulnerability; having to bend over or kneel to peer at them, I worried about falling into the display and ruining it. But Wilkes provides guardians to watch over its safety—papier-mâché figures painted skeleton white, with black-rimmed eyes and a facial topography recalling the puttylike scar tissue of burn victims. These are, their caps and insignia suggest, veterans of the war memorialized. Their distant gazes and sunken posture instantly deflate the heroic tone that so often accompanies official recollections of military loss.

The front table, guarded by such a figure, hosts artifacts recovered from the Somme site as well as personal effects, and, as such, relies on modes of signification—metonymy and indexicality—more common to historical museum displays than to memorials. Here an honorary medal, a box, a bicycle chain, a spoon, a shell casing, scraps of metal corroded and contorted beyond recognition, and, inexplicably, two small toy animals share surface area. Formal similarities seem to dictate objects’ arrangement (long things lie together, curling alongside one another like lovers; copper things turning green are convened in a shallow pile), allowing viewers the potentially blasphemous activity of discovering within these weathered mementos the present beauty of the ruin. Such aesthetic concerns are likewise at work in the two paintings that Wilkes has placed on that same table (both untitled, 2011), as their compositions are clearly inspired by the swelling, convex silhouette of infantrymen’s helmets. Between the paintings lies a black-and-white photo clipping that pictures hundreds of young men from Ulster wearing such headgear, all of them grinning and shoving their way to the camera, eager to show their readiness for battle.

Wilkes’s paintings play a crucial role in the installation. Indeed, everything in the room seems governed by painting’s frontality: With the exception of one figure, everything faces the door. This frontality derives from painting’s historical characteristics as a medium, of course, but, better still, it imparts an appropriately hieratic quality to the funerary installation. The paintings also afford a comparison between a historical past and Wilkes’s own artistic past, in that most are canvases made in previous years and borrowed back from collections. Placed in the context of a memorial to the early twentieth century, her scrubbed and impastoed surfaces seem haunted by early modernism. Her compositional allusions, which now appear reminiscent of Paul Klee or Robert Delaunay, are tested against the wartime era that first gave rise to those pictorial idioms.

In dwelling on a war from which hardly a veteran survives, Wilkes asks us to concentrate on that fulcrum where memory passes into history. Ulster, the region of Wilkes’s own upbringing, affords a poignant view onto such a transition, allowing this installation to be about the artist’s personal narratives of loss and separation as much as it is about the national trauma of war. On a back table lies a handwritten description of a painting of “Mummy and Daddy walking in the Garden of Gethsemane”—a phrase that substitutes for the image described. Nearby, Wilkes’s own signed Bible lies open next to a map of Palestine. This evocation of divided territory calls to mind the religious separations of Northern Ireland that were so conspicuous in the war, as many in mostly Protestant Ulster had hoped their sacrifices for England would result in greater protections and rights. Yet to consider the installation a statement on Ireland’s Protestant/Catholic past would be reductive. Indeed, when Wilkes shifts to metaphor, she does so not to render meaning precise, but to capitalize on the pathos generated by that trope’s instability. The idea that her parents’ “walk in Gethsemane” is meant to elaborate on the loss of war would be just as insufferable as the thought that the dead men of Ulster symbolize parental mortality as contemplated by a child. As Wilkes knows so well, it is the insufficiency of such comparisons that frays the boundaries of the pathos of our own historical subjectivities.

“Cathy Wilkes” is on view until February 26.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.