Cathie Pilkington: The Life Rooms. Reviewed by Karen Dobres
What do you think of when you think of fairy tales and dolls?
Happy times? Innocent, childhood days spent in fantasy play, imagining challenges and magic, relaxed in the expectation of a happy ever after just around the corner?
Well Cathie Pilkington, sculptural artist and Royal Academician clearly doesn’t.
Pilkington’s Brighton Festival show comprises two rooms, side by side, containing two distinct but interlinked works, Harmonium and Anatomy of a Doll.
Harmonium displays lots of macabre individual tableau inspired by fairy tales. Creepy, sometimes erotic, sometimes violent, and involving intricately crafted magical creatures, animals and dolls with human-like bodies: here is an artist who gives the lie to fairy tale romances and endings. Indeed, a lot of this work is the stuff of your worst nightmares.
Pilkington freely uses a wide range of found, recycled and new materials to make her sculptures, and they look like the end result of a brilliant and slightly sick mind. Each piece sits on makeshift shelving/storage space, designed and made in collaboration with Brighton University students. Some are on shelves, some behind them, most are unsettling. Here is a wolf in the process of sewing his sheep costume; there is a cute monkey, looking scared out of its mind, clinging desperately to a smiling mixed-species doll-comforter. A child-sized doll with a huge beehive hairstyle gazes solemnly into a dressing table mirror, surrounded by old-fashioned glazed wooden figurines. It’s unsettling, it’s grim, it’s fascinating: but what does it mean? Harmonium is challenging, referencing childhood with fairy tales and dolls without a whiff of innocence. The pieces are often gory and/or sexual in nature, and I’d be prepared for some serious questions if I took kids along to see it.
In the next room, Anatomy of a Doll takes the themes of life-drawing and Degas’ ballet dancers. Some of the figures remain unfinished as casts, or half-made; some are more doll-like; and others would be accurately described as sculptures or figurines. They’re on display in a room based on the ‘Life Room’ at the Royal Academy, and visitors are invited to try their hand at ‘life drawing’ the faceless Degas figures placed on their podiums. Pilkington seems to play with deconstructing via reconstructing from different materials. I was struck by the deliberate openness with which she is putting her art together. Somehow, there is much more on display than there would be if each piece was perfectly finished and ready to be presented in a traditional sense: this way we are invited to look at the process as well as the finished forms. And yet this witnessing feels a bit wrong – the subjects seem vulnerable, not fully formed. It’s as if I’ve walked in on something before it’s finished and shouldn’t really be there yet – like walking in on a friend in a shop changing room who hasn’t quite got the outfit on ready for appraisal. I suddenly understand the question on the flyer: ’Is it sophisticated high art or the mechanics of a handcrafted work in progress?’
I decide it’s both. The artist has made us arrive too early and feel the consequences. We’re privy to things we aren’t supposed to know about.
In both works, Pilkington compels us to take on the mantel of the voyeur. There is nothing accidental about the peeping around corners and through crannies in Harmonium, and the work is deliberately unready, half-dressed if at all, in Anatomy of a Doll. Only as an afterthought does it occur to me that all the dolls are female, and I’m relieved that, for these shows at least, the artist is female too. The male gaze from the female perspective?
I leave impressed, disturbed and expecting some weird dreams tonight…
Cathie Pilkington: The Life Rooms runs 6–27 May 2017 at University of Brighton Gallery, as part of the Brighton Festival, www.brightonfestival.org