(selected by Stephen Feeke)
After the fact, 2006
The voices of dust, the soul of dust, these interest me a lot more than flowers, trees or horses because I take them to be stranger: dust is such a different being than the rest of us. (Jean Dubuffet1).
Catherine Bertola's haunting and evocative art uses the debris of humanity - decay in the form of dust, the stuff of human passage. 'Women are traditionally trained to notice it, erase it, halt its pervasiveness. Only a bad woman would collude with it, invite it in, reconstitute it'2. Place, history and how the past resurfaces in the present are core themes; installations and objects subtly intervene with spaces, responding to the architecture and history of each site. Unashamedly beautiful, these transient works excavate the patterns of lost lives gathered in the dust of abandoned rooms, their fragility and temporality invoking the spectator's own corporeality.
Cherry Smyth writes, while Bertola's practice is steeped in history, gender politics, archaeology, forensics and anthropology, her work belongs to the long visual art tradition of the 'reality of matter' - a taxonomy of materials based in the mundane and the everyday: 'Bertola excels at transferring what the Futurists first coined 'the emotion of use' from within the materials to her work'. Umberto Boccioni argued for a new valency of matter in his 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, urging artists to use materials such as glass, iron, horsehair - materials that were 'the most rhythmic, the most dynamic, the most battered, ugly, disgusting'3 - to create objects that were neither painting nor sculpture.
Dust as a found material has a particular legacy. One of the most iconic works is Man Ray's 'Dust Breeding' (1920), an aerial photograph of the dust accumulated on the reverse of Duchamp's infamous glass piece 'A Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even' (1915-23). Like Smyth suggests, Bertola follows in the steps of artists such as Corneila Parker, Ann Hamilton and Rachel Whiteread who approach dust as a medium to reference living presences and absences. For Pilot (2005) Bertola's intervention on the concrete floor was almost absence, the gathered dust cleverly disguising itself to stunning effect, confounding expectation. For The Property of Two Gentlemen, an installation at the Minories Art Gallery, Firstsite, Bertola researched the domestic life of the former inhabitants focusing on the Boggis brothers, who lived there in the late 1700s (Firstsite's 'ballroom'). A residue of matter and memory, creeping dust wallpaper sprawled the walls, while the positioning of two chairs simply suggested the absent brothers.
PRICKINGS - Anatomy#2, Anatomy#8, Anatomy#10
Prickings is a series of 'portraits' based upon real and imagined women - skeletal-pricked ghosts of garments belonging to women now long dead. Inspired by the patterns found on mass-produced lace lingerie, Prickings explores lace as an object and status symbol, and its manufacture and association with women's social history. In the hand-lacemaking process, a pricking is where the design of lace is transferred from master cards onto vellum (calf or sheepskin), parchment or strong card. Pinholes are pricked through the material and the pattern markings are added using Indian ink to create a template for the lacemaker. The finished prickings are then attached to a lacemaking pillow ready for the lace to be made. The hook for Bertola was discovering a sign of the maker's identity: lacemakers would often leave their signature and date of completion of a lace piece on the back of a pricking parchment, leaving a personal trace in an otherwise anonymous production process.
Catherine Harper: 'In Prickings it is particularly the tiny spiteful marks of the 'prick' that excite me, the vicious piercing and punitive penetration of the gentle softness of the vellum calfskin that initiates a very knowing practice. Bertola's interventions into the domestic arena are notably highly critical, examining the pleasure of the decorative on one hand while simultaneously critiquing the exchange of labour, quite literally measured in blood, sweat and tears that allows such decadence' 4.
1. Jean Dubuffet quoted in Cherry Smyth, 'Catherine Bertola, A Dent in Time', Residue, Firstsite, Colchester, 2006.
2. Smyth, 2006
3. Umberto Boccioni, letter quoted by Piero Buscaroli in La Vista, i'udito e la memoria, Fogola, Turin 1987, quoted in Smyth, 2006.
4. Dr Catherine Harper, Catherine Bertola: Prickings, Fabrica, Brighton, 2006.
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Stephen Feeke - 'Residues'
Stephen Feeke, Assistant Curator at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds on Catherine Bertola's installation The Property of Two Gentlemen (2006).
Catherine Bertola (b. 1976, Rugby) studied at the University of Newcastle (1995-1999) and has exhibited widely in the UK. Recent solo exhibitions include The Property of Two Gentlemen, Firstsite, Colchester (2006), Prickings, Fabrica, Brighton (2006, touring to Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 2007), and Domestic Landscapes, International 3, Manchester (2005). Selected group exhibitions include Fine and Fashionable, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Durham (2006), No place like home, Beacon Art Project, Bridge Farm, Bicker (2006), Blue Star Wedge, Glasgow International (2006), and Opposite of Vertigo, Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan, Eire and tour (2006).
Bertola was one of the 16 artists resident in a Liverpool high-rise for Further Up in the Air (2002), and following this had a residency at Batiscafo projects in Havana, Cuba, organised by Gasworks/Triangle Arts Trust, London, Arts Council England and the British Council (2003). She was commissioned by the General Assembly, London for the launch of Marks & Spencer LifeStore, exhibited in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2004) and by the Government Art Collection for the DCMS building, London ('Frills and Flounces', 2006). Her most recent commission was for Snowdomes at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland. Her work is in private collections, including Simmons & Simmons, London, and she lives and works in Newcastle.