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.