Walking into the Renaissance Society, my eyes bulge and I don’t know what breaks my heart more: the crushed figures wrapped in plastic at the foot of a mannequin draped in rags, leaning on impersonal machinery, its head trapped in a birdcage and painted with debris; bowls and dishes caked with dried out food, the empty vessels of domestic care, unclean, uncared for, color coded in tragic narratives; or the horse shoes, icons of domestic production, sharpened into symbols of domestic violence, wired and dangling from the wrist of another mannequin, a woman-as-nurse perched and posed in refusal on a blue toilet seat; or the rubberized game table near her feet, partial romance inscribed on its surface through gouging.
Cathy Wilkes. I Give You All My Money. 2008. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of The Modern Institute
Checking out and being checked out has never presented two more tragic narratives, a dichotomy of desire and misery, which is still less soul crushing than the insistent isolation of its creation. In the catalog, Wilkes claims “no expectation that an audience will participate,” and “no need for someone to fully understand.”
The isolation described is a quaking echo of the hyper-isolationism of mid-century modernism, where abstraction was employed as a last resort in breaking the silence. However, while artists like Rothko advocated the complete obliteration of familiarity, Wilkes' installations–for all the artist’s claims to private meaning–are recognizable to the point of inviting interpretation. By chaining real objects with internal consistencies, rhythms, figuration, and other narrative devices, a work like “I Give You All My Money” demands to be read as a reflective text.
The only question then: is there a story? And if so, who gets to tell it? I guess we all do, either privately or semi-publicly. I can’t resist:
While certainly a critique of capitalism, “I Give You All My Money” strikes me (hard) as a display of capital's tragic effect on the personal desire to provide for others. The first figure presents a refusal of one’s own family in exchange for professional care for others, the second a sacrifice of professional aspiration (or social recognition) for raising one’s own; the first is material, the second is maternal. The first is a violent exploitation of the structures which forces the choice, the second a caged marriage to the same. The gaze of the professional, the nurse, fires in a straight line to a triplet of paintings, presented face-up lying on a table as islands of free expression; the gaze of the domestic is lost against a wall, yet the arrangement in domestic objects (spoons, bowls, toys) indicates a similar arrangement as the paintings. The impulse to create and the impulse to express are conflated here into a choice that chases a problem of conceptual art—as works of the mind to be understood through history only after the body has shuffled off. The economic and social structures which facilitate the freedom to choose between family and profession are blamed instead.
Cathy Wilkes. I Give You All My Money (detail). 2008. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of The Modern Institute.
Whether this is a "true or false" read is to miss the point as completely as to dismiss my projection as merely subjective. The aesthetic read I offer is entirely subjective, but based entirely on the artist's objective choices placed within a free space for contemplation.
To illustrate the above, imagine we are in the gallery and my good friend asks me what I believe the exhibition is about. I pause in consideration and respond with the opinion that, ahem, "Based on the objects before me, I believe Wilkes' exhibition is about the problematic tendency to conflate one's need to procreate with one's need to create, one's need to satisfy and the need to be satisfied, and one's need to express one's individuality while participating in necessary social economies, or the need to build a future in the face of one's personal absence from said future."
After which my friend, being a true student of the rules for and against interpretation, and aware of the many ways of seeing, and particularly sensitive to the fact that the exhibition is by a female artist, whereas I, as a man, cannot fully empathize with the unique experiences only women have, and which may have been the foundation for this exhibition, who knows, responds from behind his shades:
"Well that's just, like, your opinion, man."
In such a situation, the question is: which statement is more valid, my subjective interpretation of Wilke's objective choices, or my friend's objective criticism of my subjective interpretation? Which helps us more, finding a means of empathizing with people different than ourselves through inclusive and reflexive mythologies, or believing that, in the absence of absolute truth, aesthetic statements are unimportant?
–Steve Ruiz, ArtSlant Staff Writer