Memory is susceptible to bias and distortion. It is impaired or enhanced by things like time and mood, and by visual aids like photographs.
Memory and strong emotion mingle in Cathy Wilkes' exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the result is anything but sentimental. At first, the installation — curated by Dan Byers for the museum's Forum series — seems sinister, even a bit creepy. But eventually, rich layers of meaning and emotion emerge. Wilkes combines paintings and sculptures in a dreamlike tableau that is obscure yet familiar. She mines her own history to produce an enigmatic and moody piece that references key events such as childhood, motherhood and the loss of parents, while simultaneously expressing a more universal experience.
Melancholy weighs heavy on the scene but there are subtle glimpses of solace. The gallery holds three life-sized figures, two male and one female, interspersed among three low tables upon which an array of small sculptures, paintings, and found and personal items are arranged. Each male figure wears a military cap and stands forlorn and weary, vacantly staring from a tragic sad-clown face. The table between them contains such things as an Armistice Day sampler from 1918; objects dug from the site of World War I's bloody Battle of the Somme; a photograph of "Ulster men ready to go up the line"; and children's toys.
The references to Scottish and Irish involvement in the war are clear. (Wilkes, an Irish artist, lives in Scotland.) But by adding abstract paintings and items embedded with personal history, Wilkes transforms an historical display into a haunting meditation on love, memory and death.
Aside from Wilkes' keen sense of placement, the show's real stars are her paintings. But looking at them takes work. And that is plainly the point. Transcendence does not come easily. Placed flat on the tables or hung low on the back wall, her small abstract paintings are worth the discomfort of having to bend over and take a closer look.
The paintings could be interpreted as landscapes, or sunsets or the shape of the soldiers' helmets in the Ulster photograph. But mostly they are about enlightenment. Wilkes' piece asks us to confront our national narratives, to reconcile our individual pasts, to question our certainties, and to wrestle the ghosts of our own latent memories.