3.8.18 — Filthy Looker

Another extra review this week, to wrap up MoMA PS1 and the truly down and dirty. Cathy Wilkes may do more to stop the spread of colds than any artist ever. Her entire show seems designed to get visitors to wash their hands, through March 11.

Glassware lies here and there on the floor, as if left over from a sorry attempt to clean house, one item filthier than the next. Mothers tend to their children beside tubs caked with black. Or rather they tend to empty strollers, for children might have died of their sickly surroundings not so long ago. The dried sprigs here and there might have done them in.

Even the cheeriest displays come with an implicit warning not to touch. The rows of colored plastic belong to She’s Pregnant Again, making them into a test of precious bodily fluids. Then, too, a leaden title like that one or Teenage Mother suggests that women have been touching or touched where at least one person does not belong. Even paintings look like fatal or accidental stains, in one case blood red. They look no more presentable than the worn curtains and fallen rags. The repeated urgings of museum guards to step back only reinforce the impression.

Not that trashy installations are anything new. Someone or something must have done in the stuffed goat in the most famous combine painting. Its maker, Robert Rauschenberg, also meticulously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, as if art needs a thorough cleaning. Not that filth is new either. What is The New York Earth Room by Walter de Maria but a roomful of dirt, with the Dia Foundation to pick up the tab? It also inspired The New York Dirty Room by Mike Bouchet. Nothing, though, can match Wilkes for her melancholy and repugnance.

The museum speaks of her range, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and found objects. In reality, her works divide roughly in two, between installations and modest paintings. The show intersperses them at that, as if the paintings fully belonged to the installations. The first use oil on nearly bare canvas for the faintest hints of a human presence in a landscape. The latter keep returning to people, as mannequins or stuffed fabric, in a living picture. A black woman leans over shards of hard to say what. Others with blunt, vacant, or pummeled features lean over a meager meal—not so far from the simpler scene of an empty table.

Just what, though, are they doing, and what would their bare faces and the canvases like to say? What would the dead TV here and the monitor there show if they worked? The curators, Peter Eleey and Margaret Aldredge-Diamond, do not gamble on an exhibition title. They speak of “abstract fables” and “rituals of life.” They guess that the scenes of poverty derive from Scotland’s industrial wastelands, although Wilkes is Irish and the scenes entirely domestic. They speak of “frail figures huddled on shore,” even for coarse bodies behind curtains.

They may, though, be right about the rituals. People are giving birth and mourning, with faint hope of a life in-between beyond the seeming ghost of a toy horse. Wilkes seems to allude most, too, to class and the fate of women. Feminists like Mika Rottenberg and Carolee Schneemann have long associated a woman’s body with at once attraction and revulsion—as a matter of pride and as a critique of what men see. I cannot find enough in this exhibition even to dislike it, but I suspect that its true subject is art as dangerous and the site of looking. Wilkes is engaging the viewer as a filthy looker.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.