Winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2002.
Cathy Wilkes’ interest is not in the new, the perfect, the immaculate. She is sooner drawn to fragile, ordinary things, to simple old items that may be damaged somehow, that show signs of use and have a story to tell. She incorporates these into installations made up of found objects, sculptures, and drawings. While each of the objects in her installations has its own story, en masse they create scenarios that combine dreamlike intensity with a sense of urgency.
When she is drawing, Wilkes does not necessarily always start with a new sheet of snow-white paper—as we see in the three works shown here, with their multiple strata, layers, and over-writings. These three sheets were in fact taken from the plates section of a catalogue essay on the English artist Francis Bacon. Wilkes has covered the reproductions of Bacon’s images with drawings of her own, with the result that all that remains clearly visible of the original catalogue pages is the page number. Oil-paint marks and fine pencil lines coalesce at the center of these drawings into figures, as virtuosic as they are ambiguous. Is that a corpse lying on a stage? Is this a man standing in grass? Is that a human figure on a boat over there? In the last drawing, titled “Little Joe,” another frame has even been sketched in, creating a picture within a picture.
And maybe a certain similarity to motifs in paintings by Bacon is not a matter of chance. Beside repeatedly painting figures—often in contorted poses—in interiors, in his famous portraits of the Pope Bacon also took works by past masters and painted over them or continued them; by this act, which was both respectful and aggressive, he claimed a place of his own in that genealogy.
In Wilkes’ case there is no more than a subliminal hint that she may be continuing an artistic lineage. Instead she adds a different level: above the drawings Wilkes has “graffitied” slogans and titles such as “Votes for Women “Valerie Lecturing on the Planets”” and “Little Joe. “Votes for Women”” harks back to the women’s rights movement in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century, when women gathered in public and used posters and slogans to publicize their cause. There was also a magazine of that name, which was published from 1907 to 1918. Wilkes’ allusions to the beginnings of women’s liberation signal an important topic in her work, in which she consistently engages with the status of women, with the work done by women, and women’s lives. These drawings point to art history and social themes, but they also have a private, personal character, which is open to interpretation.