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Cathie Pilkington on being a 'sculptural bag lady'
[ Artist Interview )
Discover more about the sculptor Cathie Pilkington RA with Neil Walton, lecturer in art education at Goldsmiths as he chats to the artist about her 2019 installation at the Gallery, Working from Home.
Your exhibition at Pallant House Gallery responds to the domestic spaces of its 18th century townhouse rooms. How does your work fit into this setting?
It’s really a continuation of previous situated projects, like the Life Room shows at the Royal Academy and Dorich House. I wanted to respond to the different rooms in a very direct intuitive way, to get a feel for what to put there.
Pallant House is a kind of domestic space, but it’s also a bourgeois merchant’s display of wealth with its grand staircase and furniture. I wanted to respond to that ambiguous sense of it being private and public, Intimate and grand at the same time. For example, you enter the show up the great sweeping staircase and the first thing you see is Twinkle (2014). She seems to be floating, very self-absorbed with her eyes closed.
Responding to spaces has become a way of working for me. I move into a space and a lot of earlier work comes with me. I’m like a sculptural bag lady with all this gear in tow. Some elements have been made in the studio, some are built in the space, some belong to the Gallery. You could say the situated and entangled character of the work reflects a feminine perspective. The isolated, self-contained artwork, like the lone, independent artist is a masculine view of art and I wanted these spaces to disturb that order, for the connections between works and objects to be emotional, personal and intuitive.
I’m like a sculptural bag lady with all this gear in tow.
So your work is assembled from these disparate elements. It seems to me that each element, figurative or not, is like a character with an ongoing story. How important is that narrative aspect in your work?
I don’t want to fix the works’ meanings. I want to reveal their contingency. Works change while you’re making them; then they change again when you put them in a different situation. On one hand, the sculptures play at having a life of their own, but this is complicated by the inclusion of studio paraphernalia like stands and armatures which foreground their made-ness. One of my enduring inspirations is children’s book illustrations, especially 1970’s Ladybird fairy tale books. Their pictures of stuff coming to life or one thing metamorphosing into another evoke a very particular kind of materiality.
In the Pallant House Gallery show the central work makes use of a four-poster bed that’s part of the Gallery’s furniture collection. It doesn’t belong with the house historically and from the beginning it struck me as a bit of a stage prop, something dressing the room with artifice. And then the bed, any bed, is the most private and personal item of furniture. It’s where we’re born, sleep, have sex, where we die; every bed has a story, or many stories. I’ve refitted the Pallant House Gallery bed with painted covers and drapes and populated it with various doll-like sculptures. In the show it’s both a painting and a sculpture, a story-telling tableau, a kind of metaphysical fairy tale.
Some of the newest works in the show are your Pieta sculptures. The pieta is such a huge theme in the history of Western art. How have you approached it and what significance does it have for you?
I want to tackle big themes like grief and longing head on. I need to make art that talks about all this messy life stuff, big heartfelt human themes, but bring them back to something intimate and personal, and also undercut the weightiness with the absurd and the funny. My pietas have as much to do with toys and cartoons as with Michelangelo or surrealism. But it’s also a formal thing. The pieta is a wonderful sculptural image that I can play with and subvert. I can play around with that traditional sculptural language, combining it with the weird solutions that toy-makers use to make a loopy limb or a two-sided head.
One of the starting points for the pietas was a sculpture in the Pallant House Gallery collection, Henry Moore’s Suckling Child (1930). It’s a baby that seems fused to a breast, like a single object. I’m interested in psychoanalytic themes, especially in how they’ve seeped into British art during the 20th century. My sculptural language is very different to Moore’s or Barbara Hepworth’s, but like them I’m also interested in exploring how part objects exist in tension to wholes. Often in my work you start by seeing a whole, but then jarring details split the gestalt apart. This barely-holding-together in your gaze is about an ambivalence, about art, the canon, about experiences of being an artist, a mother, a person.
The Moore sculpture is very powerful, and Pallant House Gallery has such a strong collection of Modern British art. What does this work mean for you?
I now find myself strangely drawn to British modern art, strange because for so long I didn’t seem to fit into the contemporary British art scene. I love the directness of its subject matter, its human content.
It’s been amazing to have access to the Gallery collection, which is extensive for British art and full of gems. As is the case with many public collections, I would have liked to have access to more works by women artists. There are a few, like Eileen Agar, and I wanted to respond to them, but I’ve also compensated by incorporating other things from the collection, collaging them into the show in an entangled assemblage. I chose intimate, personal works, small things, works on paper, and I’ve used Snowdon’s portrait photos of women artists. They add a female presence in each of the rooms, standing proxy for the missing women; they’re like presiding matriarchs.