Between the frivolous perfection of a mannequin and the tenderness of a handmade doll would be suggested an ample range of extremes and dualities. With one and the other Cathy Wilkes builds domestic scenarios where stereotyped models of femininity are just as or more fragile than those papier maché family groups.
On the one hand, we walk among beautiful mannequins pushing strollers that in the mind of a window display designer would be arrange to sell the attributes of a desirable motherhood, but in Wilkes installations offer instead an image of women emotionally absent from the “sweet” home, as the concealment of their faces behind paintings or motorbikes indicates. as well as the carelessness that surrounds them.
The Irish artist has commented that these paintings adhered to the face symbolize inverted mirrors, from which we deduce that they are blind mirrors, that the only thing they can reflect is the feminine consciousness itself entering into its own private world.
The rusty metal of electronic devices disused (one of them seems bogged down between the aqueous pigments of an abstract painting) and dirty bowls scattered all around the living room complete the soulless scenography of this artwork, included in her solo exhibition recently opened in MoMA PS1.
We had already seen these same mothers in previous installations, as in Non Verbal, a title that probably points out the solipsism that harasses the Wilkes cast of characters, the difficulty of communicating the inner world. But this title also impels us to delve deeper into the contemporary paradoxes that elicit the motherhood.
The mother-child relationship is essentially pre-verbal and that’s where its power lies, wrote Julia Kristeva. The maternal body, explains the author, is a being of folds, stands on the threshold between nature and culture, providing a privileged place as a giver of life and language.
Wilkes is not as optimistic. Her feminine figures denote a feeling of loss, a deep split between duty and desire for not being able to discern the (maternal?) instinct from the social construction of it.
Simone de Beauvoir was one of the first to deny that this was a natural instinct, pointing out that it is an utter patriarchal invention to instill in the feminine unconscious essentialist notions about her domestic roles, including motherhood. Beauvoir dethroned the mother figure of her sacred altar, because that idealization (Christian heritage) as self-sacrificing and suffering restricts her autonomy and personal fulfillment.
But taking into account the work of Wilkes as a whole, we see that the emotional conflict related to motherhood itself but rather regarding the issue of taking care of the other, the tense oscillation between emotional attachment and detachment, aspects that she has delt on the subject of child-rearing but also in reference to nursing care. She also draws attention to the gap between an act seen from the outside and the inner reality that motivates it.
The artist exemplifies the latter with a disturbing image that tells us a lot about her mental processes. It is the biblical episode in which Jochebed (Moses’ mother) put her son in a basket and left him in the water trusting that the river stream would lead him by chance to some charitable soul. Wilkes focuses on the gesture of the hand at the moment of pushing the basket, trying to figure out the emotional intensity of that instant of forced detachment.
The tableau vivant inhabited with dolls that she makes herself in linen or papier mâché also exude a decadent halo but in front of the frigid atmospheres that she composes with the mannequins, these rag families awaken tenderness and empathy. A hunchbacked man in front of a bottle of beer, children forming a ring around him, a woman doing the laundry, chipped dishes… A strange mixture of sacredness and rottenness permeate the silent scenes.
Another comment by the artist that we can rescue is her interest in capturing the moment of the shortest shadow, as Nietzsche called at midday as a metaphor for the lack of distinction between truth and appearance, light and shadow, neither immanence nor transcendence… Everything is questioned at noon, dualisms are atomized, the multiplicity that shapes us breaks out.
Wilkes seems to ask us to place ourselves under the midday sun to understand the unbridgeable distance between inner reality and representation, between present and memory, between the living and the specters that wander around her installations.
Cathy Wilkes, What We See, What We Feel
Solo show at MoMA PS1
as the winner of Maria Lassnig Prize 2017
Can be visited until March 11th 2018