Cathy Wilkes, Untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Cathy Wilkes


Cathy Wilkes, Untitled (detail), 2014, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Making installations that combine abstract paintings and both figurative and abstract sculptures with found objects and ones she has collected over the years, Cathy Wilkes disperses all these components into absorbing and mysterious tableaux. Through these sometimes haunting assemblages, the Glasgow-based artist examines issues such as femininity, sexuality, and motherhood, while experimenting with all sorts of media and materials and carefully composing disparate elements into eerie domestic scenes.

Untitled, 2014, a new installation commissioned for “Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland”—a nationwide program of events and exhibitions charting the evolution of the country’s internationally recognized contemporary-art scene over the past two and a half decades—was composed of waiflike, armless, sculpted figures draped with a variety of fabrics, some standing with lowered heads; others, smaller, seemed to be sleeping on the bare cement floor. The figures are reminiscent of the characters in the late-nineteenth-century US comic strip The Yellow Kid, which satirized the developing consumer society of the time by following the adventures of a bunch of New York slum urchins. Placed around on the floor were arrays of mismatched mugs, plates, and platters, as well as tiny pieces of pottery, ornaments, snippets of jewelry, and a variety of trinkets such as thimbles, necklace charms, and small bells for animal collars, some of them rusted or dirty. Several small pieces of linen cloth and sheets of baking parchment were lined up on the floor, each patterned with the oily traces of baked cookies—one parchment had tiny horse-shaped curios carefully placed on it, as if their positioning held some enigmatic meaning. Nearby, what looked like an emaciated cow made of cloth over an armature lay on the floor with a small sleeping figure right next to it. Throughout, there was an ambiguity and unease in the orientation of the isolated figures, heightening the sense of their displacement.

At several points within the installation were diaphanous, crisscrossed thread structures loosely hanging between pillars. Barely noticeable upon entering the space, they accentuated the fragility of both the materials and life itself, represented by the silent, contemplative figures. A palpable sense of loss permeated the work. It expresses mourning—for the value of individual handwork, craft, and the human touch, among other things. The entire installation was positioned toward the back of the massive Tramway 2 gallery space. Approaching and then walking around and through the installation was like viewing an archaeological reconstruction or a historical diorama. Yet, removed from any identifiable context, the tableaux seemed more mystical than didactic in import. The objects in them take on talismanic significance, but their real potency emerges in relation to an image of frail humanity.

Lauren Dyer Amazeen