Cathy Wilkes

MoMA PS1
22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue
October 22–March 11

View of “Cathy Wilkes,” 2017–18.

The air is cold and heavy with desperation: Witness the tattered cloths, the dirty dishes. A 2006 painting with an overturned saucer affixed to its jejune surface spells out its title in thin pencil strokes: “She’s pregnant again.” The piece is a womb and a void. Look at the children: Their legs are thin or absent, their toys worn, shredded (see the brown Beanie Babies bunny whose velvety ears lie a little too close to that tarnished Swiss Army knife, in Non Verbal, 2005/2011). Their TV is turned off, with a faded red towel thrown on top of it—did it put out a small fire? Cathy Wilkes’s show is full of sparks, both deadened and vibrant. Life is glimpsed through assemblages of used and abused containers, discarded items, and household goods.

But the kids can still draw and write: “All things were made by it and without it was not anything made that was made,” says a carefully transcribed passage on wide-ruled paper in a youthful hand (Untitled, 2017). It’s part nonsense, part faith—a story about creation that rhymes without reason. And Wilkes eschews reason. She intends for her work to be experienced as a vast mystery, unfolding as a kind of maternal detachment. Mannequin mothers stand stiffly in ripped stockings, float above dead nettles, dance while possessed by some cleaning routine, or sit hunched over an alcohol bottle while the young ones watch hungrily nearby. In their wake are those fragments of narrative—crusty residues, shards of mirror—rearranged and broken again for this haunting retrospective.

Mira Dayal