In 2020, towns and cities fell quiet as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Working from home soon became the norm for many workers who had previously flocked to their centres. After successive lockdowns, the shift to business as usual was slow, and in some cases, no longer viable. Even before the pandemic, highstreets had been hit by a change in habits brought about by online shopping. Recently, national chain Wilko went into administration, leaving 400 stores hanging in the balance. Katrina Cowling’s Near to the Wild Heart takes heed of these developments, as well as the materials and melancholy of twenty-first-century post-industrial landscapes. The artist looks inward, too, drawing on her lived experiences in her hometown of Bradford. The resulting works, developed through a Kenneth Armitage Sculpture Fellowship, also reference the bleakly poetic ruminations of everyday life by Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), whose 1943 novel lends its title to Cowling’s solo exhibition.
Stepping into Blenheim Walk Gallery at Leeds Arts University, visitors are greeted by an assortment of materials more commonly found on a construction site. Provisional fencing, aluminium poles, MDF and polythene – encountered on a daily basis in the city, everywhere from roadworks to housing developments – are reimagined. Cowling evokes personal experiences of isolation and hopelessness through disassociation, as the materials are pulled away from their usual context. In this dystopian playground, visitors embark on a quiet journey of discovery, making connections between the out-of-place materials and the vulnerability of the mind. However, amidst the despondency, glimmers of hope and possibility shine through: these materials might be overlooked, but they are also full of potential.
Near to the Wild Heart (2023) is an installation made up of a series of untitled works. Two of the largest pieces transform aluminium tubes, overlocked and sewn polythene dust sheets and tie straps. They evoke makeshift shelters or tents, broadly alluding to the rise of homelessness in urban areas since the pandemic. On closer inspection, scraps of coloured tape and instructional jottings, such as ‘front (top)’, remind viewers of the more typical function of these materials, their use in the construction of permanent structures. In this unfamiliar setting, they balance on the edge, moving between different states: strong yet fragile, rigid yet malleable, active and passive. The metaphorical shape-shifting is endless.
These binaries are enhanced further through the use of light and shadow in the show. Cowling draws on eight years of experience bending neon to create bright twists and tangles. These abstracted lines are disruptive yet playful, adding colour to an otherwise muted presentation. In the centre of the space, a ripple of neon wraps around a cast and polished concrete sculpture. Light draws the eye, transforming the cold, rigid piece into a landmark or monument in a sea of evolving materials.
Elsewhere, kinetic experiments blend and merge, revealing a joy in the everyday. Lengths of plastic bags are given life through a system of fans, which propel them upwards. These ever-changing forms are disruptive and energetic, losing themselves in the magic of movement. The installation becomes a cycle of renewal, independent of the hands of the artist. Other moments of implied motion, such as orange laser-cut acrylic sheets, mirror these fleeting forms. These different states of flow reflect a restless mind, jumping from thought to thought, emotion to emotion, whilst navigating everyday life. Viewers, like the artist, may become consumed by the tangle, projecting onto it their own experiences and innermost thoughts. This state of being is perhaps best described by Lispector in Near to the Wild Heart:
‘I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself. When I suddenly see myself in the mirror, I am not startled because I find myself ugly or beautiful. I discover, in fact, that I possess another quality. When I haven’t looked at myself for some time, I almost forget that I am human, I tend to forget my past, and I find myself with the same deliverance from purpose and conscience as something that is barely alive’.
In the same way, thought, feeling and experience are displaced by Cowling’s exhibition. Flickers of familiarity act as triggers for memories of post-industrial landscapes, whilst the shifting materiality enables a losing of oneself. Artist and viewer are left reflecting on levels of consciousness whilst attempting to forge connections between the wandering mind and the limitless potential of objects.
This is a personal journey for the artist, but it also represents a collective experience. In this way the show is purposely fractured. Materials are untamed or in states of collapse, yet there are delicate moments of contact, either physical or metaphorical. Neon tubing brushes on slip-cast porcelain rebar. Two MDF platforms, positioned in opposite corners of the room, provide an anchoring structure to the smaller, unruly sculptures. Five aluminium poles crowned with serrated security fence fronds further consolidate the display, reminiscent of robotic limbs gesturing to one another across the space. These moments of contact pull the whole display together and break periods of isolation and introspection.
Whilst there are echoes of abandonment and vulnerability through Cowling’s use of overlooked materials, there is an air of newness too – a squeaky-clean glossiness that reveals the artist’s hand. At times this battles against the idea of the discarded, but it is the displacement of these materials that transforms them into vessels that allow the artist – and viewer – to navigate their own state of being.
Katrina Cowling: Near to the Wild Heart is on at Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, 28 September 2023 – 16 December 2023.
Saffron Ward is a writer based in Leeds.
This review is supported by Leeds Arts University.