by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Cathy Wilkes at 112, Sword Street

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The first question we are taught to ask of a work of art is: what does this mean?

It’s a good place to start, and one that, given the current vogue for the quick con­cep­tu­al quip, often yields immediate answers. Cathy Wilkes’s in­stal­l­a­tions of sculpture, painting and arranged objects don’t prompt that stock question, and they don’t sidestep it either.

Instead Wilkes has found a way to render the first step to un­der­stand­ing her practice redundant, as if her work is coated in some slick substance that allows it to slip past the critical barrier, taking up residence in the thoughts of her audience un­me­di­ated.

This isn’t because Wilkes is one of those needy in­tel­lec­tu­als, who feel duty-bound to layer allusion upon counter-allusion, afraid to make a mark that doesn’t place itself in the flow of art history, compelled to engage with their in­flu­ences at the expense of finding their own voice. Nor is her work an empty Wildean exercise, all about the glorious surface. No, Wilkes makes work that is com­pel­ling, en­gross­ing, the sort of thing that that springs unbidden into your mind weeks, months, even years after you first see it, still fully formed, still intact, with none of the edges knocked off by in­ter­pret­a­tion. In other words, while other artists com­mu­n­ic­ate ideas through their work, Wilkes seems to be com­mu­n­ic­at­ing the idea that there are ideas, and there is work, and that’s that.

If this effect, which borders on the uncanny, can be ap­pre­ci­ated when Wilkes shows in con­ven­tion­al white­walled gallery spaces, it is heightened when her work is housed in a long­aban­doned east end unisex hairdress­er­’s in Glasgow. At 116 Sword Street - the location reclaimed by curators Switch­space - the first evidence of an artist’s presence is a series of half­formed letters, con­strained and divided by the panels of the wall they’re painted on. Beyond these fractured glyphs, in the back room of the former salon, is a small col­lec­tion of found objects, one painting, and two sculp­tures. There’s a half- shattered glass, and an old cup, both sitting on the floor beneath a bathroom sink, a single strand of tangled-up black thread draped over it. Alongside, also placed on the shop floor, is a small lampshade, turned upside-down, with the head of an electric tooth­brush standing inside, off-centre. Sur­roun­d­ing these as­sem­blages are two stumpy little sculp­tures, simple metal forms with uprights and crossbars. In the corner, a lump of in­dus­tri­al equipment - a sander, perhaps - sits, plugged in but not running.

On the wall is a small painting with a saucer glued to its upper- right corner, and a hastily scribbled text, reading:

“She’s pregnant again.”

Cynical readers will, no doubt, be sup­press­ing a groan at that summary, and artists who find some stuff, then put it next to some other stuff, are indeed tena-penny and often worth less. But this is where Wilkes’s great strength is revealed. Her prosaic col­lec­tion of un­re­mark­able items, matched with made objects that don’t exactly dazzle in isolation, are combined and placed in such a way that the re­la­tion­ships between them seems almost tangible, as if you could reach out and twang taut wires con­nect­ing each component part of the in­stal­l­a­tion to its neighbour, and the sur­roun­d­ing space. This evocation of a tensile physical con­nec­tion goes further still, seeming to engender a dumb com­pli­city between inanimate objects and the space in which they find them­selves.

Mounting work like this in a decaying Den­n­is­toun­ hairdress­er­’s doubles the sense of in­ter­con­nec­tion, to the extent that visitors risk bringing to life the apo­cryph­al tale of the pre­ten­tious art lover who waxes lyrical about fixtures and fittings, his back turned to the art on show. There is, for example, a broken panel in amongst those slight sug­ges­tions of an alphabet. Perhaps Wilkes broke it, perhaps she didn’t.

There is, too, a patch of wall on which posters have been pasted, then torn down, and a small, brightly lit cubicle that is com­p­letely empty - both are absences that might be in­ter­ven­tions, or might not. It is almost as if, once you ap­pre­ci­ate the as­so­ci­a­tions between Wilkes’s work, it becomes im­pos­s­ible to avoid gathering up ever­yth­ing that surrounds it, seeing sig­n­i­fic­ance in ever­yth­ing, looking hard for a route into the work, a piece of the puzzle that will allow it to be as­sim­il­ated and broken down into easily digested gobbets of meaning.

This collusion between the work and its ex­hib­i­tion space is nothing new for Wilkes - she famously ripped up the floor of Tran­s­mis­sion gallery for a 2001 solo show - but here it serves to further the odd sense of un­break­able wholeness that permeates her work. It is also a nod to Switch­space, the now defunct or­gan­isa­tion behind this show, in their final cur­at­or­i­al exercise.

The ex­hib­i­tion neatly closes a circle, since it was a lecture by Wilkes, ex­plain­ing the process of con­ver­t­ing her flat into a temporary gallery, that prompted Sorcha Dallas and Marianne Greated to found Switch­space in 1999, aiming to explore the pos­s­ib­il­it­ies of present­ing art in peculiar places, from Dallas’s front room, to west end cafe basements, to, as here, abandoned com­mer­ci­al spaces. More than a practical solution to the problems faced by young artists trying to find a place to show their work, over the past five years, Switch­space has prompted artists to re­con­sider­ their working methods and forge new ways of making work sensitive to or inspired by its sur­roun­d­ings. This show, then, is a home­com­ing of sorts for Cathy Wilkes - a return to her adopted home town, and a return to explicit en­gage­ment with her ex­hib­i­tion space - as well as serving as an apt tribute for Switch­space, the or­gan­isa­tion her work inspired.

This review was first published in The Sunday Herald on December 12, 2004.