New York

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Cathy Wilkes

MoMA PS1

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Replete with sticky materials summoning childcare and motherhood, a selection of Cathy Wilkes’s most potent works from the past twenty years is installed in her first major survey, awarded to the artist as the inaugural winner of the Maria Lassnig Prize. Incorporating found objects from the Glasgow area (where the artist is based) into assemblage, painting, and sculpture, Wilkes’s work elicits a deep form of attention that defies the tyranny of forgetting, overlooking, not noticing. In a vitrine near the start of the exhibition, lying next to a carved, wooden bird ornament flipped supine so that it raises its long legs to the sky, is a pale-yellow plastic bowl in which a film of grime has dried, containing a fragment of a broken circular mirror. That sharp shard in Moons, 2004, reflects an angle of the bowl that we cannot see inside, and operates as a tense, tender variant on one of Robert Smithson’s 1969 Mirror Displacement interventions in the Yucatán. With a dull lunar glow, it depicts a cyclical infinity of dirty dishes, a retraction in scope and sphere that may turn violent. And yet, with its cosmic, orbital associations, and the pleasure one might take in roundness and withholding, this is surely as much a work of love as of resentment. A jar of apricot Bonne Maman jam, the remaining globs of confiture dried to the sides of the glass, contains a single battery stood on one end, and radiates a similarly insular energy.

These kinds of gravities form coordinates for Wilkes’s exhibition, in which emotional and physical residues are left on pawed objects and paintings, displayed in constellations that point to feminized labor. There are scrawled whispers adjacent to painted saucers (She’s Pregnant Again, 2005); there’s the body as silent image in the form of a shop mannequin whose entire face is obscured by a painted canvas, with drips of streaky green paint dried over her left breast. There are signifiers of middle-class products in the form of empty Aveda shampoo bottles and pots of Burt’s Bees lotions that are covered in slime or burned-on grease. There’s a cheap-looking Hitachi television monitor on a generic glass stand, a British Telecom cordless phone, a toilet, a sink, an open vitrine filled with dried porridge and baby bowls. Plush ears ripped off a stuffed animal, strange little technical shoes for toddlers. An accumulation of bodily fluids and pastes and muck that speak to cleaning, wiping, and picking up again and again, under a relentless regime of need and of narrowing scope, which appears to drive emotionally deeper and wider even when suggesting a type of entrapment. That sensation travels to Wilkes’s paintings, which blush with stains and are smeared in grime.

Though her use of assemblage might draw comparisons with artists such as Isa Genzken and her refusal to disclose the specificities of her fraught, messy scenographies of minor actors may summon Kai Althoff, Wilkes exerts a unique tug on the soul that emerges throughout this magnificent exhibition, opening up a distinct channel of pervasive societal repression. Many of the materials here are those that are rarely a point of focus, yet a failure to attend to the plumbing, the second-rate television, or the odd accessories of parenting is the denial of a sphere of care that can easily be recognized as personal and political, and one that can be scaled up to a level of planetary concern. It seems clear, as the exhibition opens up to larger, more landscaped spaces, that Wilkes’s regard for the materials and gestures of care and attention constitutes a kind of ethics that expands beyond the zone of a small family unit. Framed by crepuscular paintings in flimsy blues and greens, small figures with bodies of paper and fabric are dressed raggedly, appearing to be absorbed in the activities of basic survival, housed in improvised shelters that undeniably bring to mind refugee crises and the madness of poverty. Heavy pots from a now-closed Scottish pottery are scattered across the floor, as a drunken man stumbles around them, observed by two children. A sense of displacement in which basic needs of feeding, caring, and cleaning become harder and riskier pervades. Gently, one figure wipes a tiny child’s face as another washes pink rags. A large bucket of messy pink paint seems to spill across the scene. In fact, this spreading color makes visible a form of touch itself: gestures that mark every object, and stains that bloom across everything.

Laura McLean-Ferris