Perversity is calibrated with the status quo as zero, so that the ‘norm’ is a matter of consensus rather than a priori. Traditionally the role of the artist is to buck such norms, of culture at large as well as art-history, as a matter of course. A sizeable span into the 21st Century though, and we can confirm what we perhaps suspected for some time: that the world is perverse enough, with its nutters, radicals and entrepreneurs, and art might be more subversive if it avoided polar antagonism, rash action or patricidal gestures. Katie Cuddon is flexing just such muscles of gentle subterfuge. Her areas of inquiry tend to be liminal, where phenomena overlap, images and materials display semiotic suppleness and the perceptual habits of the viewer start to atrophy or limber up. Radio Cloud (2007), for instance, seems to represent a peculiar instance of anomalous behaviour: a glob of clay pretends to be a cloud clustering around a chrome handle placed far too low on the wall to be of much use. Inferences of radio broadcast release all manner of fantasies about the conductivity of clay, while its ultimate thwartedness leaves it brooding in a state of melancholy muteness.
The ambiguity of Radio Cloud is achieved through a subtle, and perhaps not entirely controlled, choreography of referential and narrative cues. Cuddon trespasses on the privacy of associative thought, pre-empting and heading off recognisable denouements, channelling them instead into modestly perverse non sequiturs. Her work often plays upon what we do and don’t know about an image or substance, and she orchestrates puns and travesties that arise from misdirection. Cock Microphone (2008) is a classic pun, whereby a form from one realm overlaps with that of another not usually associated with it. Here the private member and the public showman coalesce in a single object that could be riotous, confrontational, insulting or banal – depending on our disposition. Considering the simplicity of the conflation of motifs, the resultant sensation is not straightforward, as uncomfortable associations of vulnerability, inadequacy, embarrassment or shame arise for some, while the obverse delight, empowerment, freedom and mirth may be felt by others.
The fusing of two ideas, objects or references into one image is the recipe for a classic Surrealist object such as the lobster telephone or fur teacup. Cock Microphone is Cuddon’s most brassy piece, but Minotaur (2008) is perhaps more obliquely loaded. A female torso with holes for nipples masquerades as a bull’s head, its arms becoming the horns. Or is it the other way round: a bull passing off as a human torso? Whichever way the direction of transformation, a drawing of a silhouetted dog, as black and flat as the void through the nipples/eyes and held aloft like a signal or votive, throws us off scent. Cuddon’s intention is to cut across the associative trail of the minotaur lurking in the labyrinth, turning us instead towards Diogenes and the Cynics, who proposed a dog’s life as emblematic of instinctive resourcefulness, independent of intellectualism, which was deemed hypocritical and inconsistent.
A full recall of Greek mythology may not be available to us all, but it is interesting to note how the symbol of the sniffing dog has sustained its meaning, our anthropomorphism remaining pretty constant. Without the ongoing and extensive commentary and analysis of Classical mythology, though, it would be difficult to gauge meaning between eras or societies, as relativism subsumes fixed meaning. There is a sense, though, that Cuddon is searching for universal points of stability throughout her work, if only to render them unstable. Holes, for instance, seem to be an important signifier, malleable yet bounded. On a plinth at the very beginning of the show at Globe Gallery a glove made of clay appears weathered and worn. Unlike the rest of the works here it has not been painted black and white, but left raw to explicitly remind us of its status as handmade. It is a hand-made hand. Cuddon cues up this self-referentiality at the off, as if to prime us on how to perceive the other works. None of them are solid, they are all surface, a glove to the hand of the object they represent. Leg Plough (2008) is more trousers than legs, containing sand displaced as they ploughed through some deserted terrain perhaps. There is something distinctly literary about this image, like a Flann O’Brien implausibility, or an echo of Richard Bach’s saviour swimming through the land instead of walking on water in Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1972).
Leg Plough wavers between comedy and melancholy, whereas the hollowness of Hunger Woman (2007) accentuates its anguish, recalling the sepulchral, howling forms of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c. 1944). The frailty of the clay, rather than provoking a sense of the delicate sublime, figures thoughts of frustration, of materiality battered by the tide of entropy and ever-threatening collapse. Despite the apparently collected coolness of this monochrome collection, there is an undertow of struggle, barely masked or about to brim over. Cock Microphone is the most theatrically hysterical, spot-lit and confrontational like a drag queen in full flight. But there is a quieter theatricality to other works too, perhaps because of the pooled lighting; or maybe it’s down to Cuddon’s family background, which is well versed in traditional theatre. Peter and Jane (2008) comprise a pair of hollow busts in uneasy conversation with one another. Their cursory distinguishing features – the hairline of the man and the opal eyes of the woman – and the glance that passes from the one to be deflected by the proffered cheek of the other become a template for any narrative we care to project upon it. The formalised interaction between objects, and between object and viewer, prompts us to contemplate the stereotypes they hinge upon: issues of gender and sexuality, rejection, failure, loss and, again, shame.
This tendency towards emotional extravagance is not the self-emersion of autobiography, but an ambivalent manipulation of emotion as raw matter, reflected in the sensory indulgence of clay, tactility and craft. The artist’s hand is evident in the wobble of the objects’ surface and the imprint of her fingertips, and it is difficult not to think of that scene in Jerry Zucker’s film Ghost (1990), when the sensuality of a woman sculpting with clay is inflated to the level of soft porn. Cuddon plays up to this stereotype with her selfreferential imagery: the penis-cum-microphone speaks of blatant desire to the point of pastiche, while a schematic drawing of a pair of breasts, made just-solid in delicate lines of clay, threatens to dissolve through unrequited lust.
After all this arousal and expressiveness it is almost shocking to see Cuddon’s computer graphic-like representations of blobs and clean-edged test card drawings. Amorphous forms described by precise netted lines, as if subjects of important technological study, seem like an exercise in the absurdity of art. They demonstrate the banality that the act of drawing can disguise, as the emotive quality of pencil or colour cannot quite elevate these non-subjects beyond the deadpan point of gratuitous delineation. Cuddon talks of these drawings as if they were palette cleansers, controllable drawings that break the spell of gravity-enslaved clay. A line on paper can be made to appear to go anywhere, do anything. Drawing is scrutiny, control – physics to the biology of clay.
Look glancingly at Cuddon’s unassuming pair of drawings Amour et Psyche, (2008) and you may categorise them similarly as mechanical exercises that recalibrate the artist’s sensibilities after all that mucky clay and narrative. Viewed side-by-side, however, their symmetry effuses the psychoanalytical tang of Rorschach inkblots, and from here the drawings unravel entirely, as if their corset has been loosened. These patterned blobs are in fact reciprocally printed black-and-white infills of a mirrored silhouette of Antonio Canova’s Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour [Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss] (1787). Their façade of abstracted Op is fairly bursting with Classical mythology of hard-won love and jealousy, while intoning more recent developments in the studies of emotional functionality. This coupling of references, again in the spirit of Surrealist punning, makes explicit the analogous function of myth and psychoanalysis as tools for self-knowledge. Far from cool graphic autonomous counterpoints to Cuddon’s ceramic elegies, then, Amour et Psyche articulates a perverse human ability, or even need, to soak everything in emotional import and draw personal relevance from the most generic of incidents.