Trying to Describe Katie Cuddon’s Work

Trying to Describe Katie Cuddon’s Work is Like…..
by Colin Perry

First, I must apologise. While I want nothing more than to faithfully describe Katie Cuddon’s sculptural work as it actually appears, I will no doubt get it utterly wrong. This, I’ve learnt from experience, is unavoidable. Art is slippery. Perhaps the best course of action is to describe each work individually in terms of its materials, surface and form. This seems like the decent thing to do. I could note that, for example, Poker (2011) is an elongated clay object coated in dirty blue, green and dribbly powder-pink glaze. But, having said that, I cannot resist the urge to also mention that the title sounds like a crass pun (‘poke her’). Is that an outrageous idea? Perhaps this reading is simply a projection of my own gutter mind, but, in my defence, I do have justifiable reasons: Cuddon’s earlier works are spiked with double entendres and outright bawdiness (with titles such as, Making Glove [2007] and Cock Microphone [2008]). So if, I am simply being honest with you, the reader. Nevertheless, the question remains – did the artist mean me to think this? Certainly, one might simply ask the artist what she intended (I have her email address, after all). But doing so would not solve the issue. The crux of the situation – as all good readers of critical theory know – is that meaning in art is only partially tethered to its author’s intent.

Artist, critic, and gallery-goers all have the right to get it wrong. But there is a caveat – we cannot stray too far. If we stray too far from the author’s intent or the integrity of an object, we would be guilty of misinterpretation – which is when one goes beyond the facts into the wallowing pit of one’s own subjectivity. Welcome to the dance of interpretation, where art’s various actors come face to face. Cuddon’s work, I think, is keenly aware that viewers love to drape words around them. Of course, material works elides definition on its own terms: I am neither eager nor capable of describing Cuddon’s sculptures by making another sculpture. And so, when we seek to simply describe a work of art, metaphors, similes and verbal ascriptions are inescapable. Sculpture is a relationship between persons mediated by an object… but this sounds rather dull. A more enjoyable way of thinking of an artwork’s relationship with its audience is in terms of a metaphor or simile – say the motif of the hunter and prey. Works can be as shy as a mouse; or by contrast, the audience might be predatory; or, to invert the formula again, works might be seen as snares set to snag herdlike or bovine gallery-goers. Cuddon’s works are, perhaps, both shy and barbed. They hook us in with anthropomorphic qualities, symbolic signification and base jocularity. But they rapidly withdraw to a level of material abstraction that’s hard to capture with language. For example, look at Hollow Cough (2010), whose very title suggests verbal spluttering, and whose sculptural form is at once bronchial and votive. Goodbye Torrelodones (2011), is more mysterious again – an open wooden cube-frame containing a sculpture that is not quite heart-shaped, on top of which sits an enigmatic charcoal-black object. The work’s semantic elusive- allusiveness suggests a forsaken purpose: a shrine for an abandoned deity, or a half- recalled version of post-War existentialist sculpture. The more one looks, the more its defining quality becomes one of lost meaning, and the more we fall back on the basics of surfaces (scrubby and stubborn), volume (containing nought but space), and material (pinched and pushed like tendered meat).

If all art yearns to ultimately be put into words – the only way it can truly become part of a wider culture of homo verbalis, the speaking beast – then Cuddon’s work appears to seek to forestall this process. Many of the our society’s most noted artists have played with meta-levels of interpretation as if to hold it at bay: Vlladamir Nabokov did this magisterially in Pale Fire (1962); likewise, playwright Luigi Pirandello and author Georges Perec allegorized the interpretative impulse through the notion of the character whose quest is to discover his or her own author. For a sculptor such as Cuddon, whose raw material is clay, paper and bronze, language is double-trouble. Her work understands that, in visual art, buddying up to words is like befriending a sadist. Some works suggest a wilful desire to resist interpretation (Listening with a Finger in their Ear, 2011). Perhaps (again, I’m speculating), we could say that the battered surfaces of Katie Cuddon’s works are the tragicomic pre- emptive dynamic of such an encounter. Look at M (2011), a black cube, whose surface is thumped and bumped in to place, recording Cuddon’s fingerprints and the dimensions of her own body. From a certain angle, you can see the sunlight coming through a crack in the clay armature. Is this a joke about Eco’s “open” work – whose interpretation is social and ad hoc, and where the author is relegated (unfairly) to a mere spectator?

Or, perhaps, Cuddon’s works are like scripts for a play that might be performed by actors (you and I). For example, note how Waiting for the Cue (2011) suggests some for of theatrical cognizance in its title and gestural poise. When I discussed her plans for her new show at Simon Oldfield Gallery, Cuddon mentions the play Kaspar (1967) by Peter Handke. Kaspar is loosely based on the case of Kaspar Hauser, a near-mute teenage boy found walking the streets of Nuremburg in 1828 who had purportedly raised in solitary confinement before being released to the world by his unknown captor. Handke’s play centres on Kaspar who stands alone on stage as he is interrogated, coaxed and verbally tortured by a series of off-stage voices. Yet, if Cuddon’s sculptures are Kaspar-like, they are not without defence. Their authority comes from their quiet presence. I don’t mean to say that these works are mysterious, nestling the indestructible essence of divinity; rather, they are aware that we, the audience, can by necessity never know them fully. They communicate something ante-linguistic that is vital theatre: the gestures of bodily position, angle and attitude. Literate but not literal, Cuddon’s sculptures appear too canny to speak.