Do Not Touch

courtesy of the Renaissance Society

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Just before last Sunday’s opening of Cathy Wilkes’s exhibit “I Give You All My Money,” Renaissance Society staff briefly convened to determine where the installation’s borders were supposed to lay. One staff member suggested that gallery-goers should be permitted to step over the small purple roses scattered on the floor. Another staffer agreed, but suggested using the disintegrating pink rubber mat as a limit. Guests could approach the small pile of matted hair and shattered pottery on the floor, but probably should not go behind the abandoned counters of the supermarket conveyor belt.

As anticipated, the boundary between art and gallery space was re-drawn as each viewer interacted with the piece. One man bent down to pick up a rose and was promptly informed that touching was not allowed. Later, a young girl gleefully approached a stovetop and reached for a worn plastic fawn resting atop the burners–only to be reminded by her mother that she shouldn’t grab at the toy because “this is art.”

“I Give You All My Money,” nominated for the Tate Modern’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2008, certainly defies any singular reading. Painted mannequins draped with rags are juxtaposed with food containers with crusty residues of marmalade and porridge, creating a scene with an uncertain narrative. “I am not interested in trying to be objective in a work of art,” Wilkes said in a talk with curator Hamza Walker last Sunday. “There isn’t a point to thinking what somebody else might think as I’m working.”

Though scattered bowls, an old stroller, a stove, and the exhibit’s title certainly address the issues of consumerism and womanhood, the objects in her installation do not insist on a singular interpretation. Wilkes says she was inspired by the notion of attention, “a contemplative openness without any thoughts, a non-aggressive thinking.”

In creating “I Give You All My Money” Wilkes says she drew from her own experience as a woman, a mother, and a Christian. Repeated motifs in the installation raise some objects to icon status, serving as vehicles of communion for their viewers. “There is a type of presence in repeated actions,” she explained in the talk with Walker. The image of a basket, for example, is included both in the form of a birdcage hung over a mannequin’s head and as a shopping basket, which serve as signs of entrapment in the role of a homemaker. Yet, according to Wilkes, it also references the basket Jochebed used to send Moses down the Nile representing the ultimate maternal sacrifice.

As viewers contemplated the installation components of “I Give You All My Money,” three untitled paintings lay on a wooden table on the other end of the gallery, largely ignored. The small canvases, abstract compositions with colorful undulating lines and amorphous forms, displayed a thick buildup of paint, smeared like mud on the image surface. Though these paintings seemed at first a far cry from the other symbolic objects in the exhibition, their placement on a table suggested that they, too, should be viewed as objects rather than fine art. But as Wilkes discussed how her paintings would accumulate layers of detritus from use as impromptu notepads and coasters, the paintings began to emerge as readymades in their own right.

By taking objects out of her own life–whether pots, pans, or paintings–and inserting them into the sterile “white cube” of the gallery space, Wilkes successfully transforms them. A viewer can recognize the objects as functional or sentimental reminders of home, but the desire to touch and use them is blocked by their status as art. “A feeling of alienation or not alienation with objects is important,” Wilkes says, later adding, “I was putting them inside a cosmic space, apart from the physical world we live in.” By suspending quotidian objects in a realm of contemplation and confusion, Wilkes encourages her viewers to reconsider the relationships and borders between people, objects, and the art we often take for granted.

The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Avenue. Through Mar. 4, 2012, Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday: 12-5pm. (773)702-8670.