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Cathy Watkins: Don't Look Now

Hilton Young, Penzance 


Barbie has been around for a long, long time and don't we know it.  She has been thrown into the fire by feminists and nailed to many an arts cross, and now here she is again along with some other toy friends, thrown ass up onto the walls of Hilton Young.

Cathy Watkin's work clearly opens up questions around the sexualisation of children. Watkins herself cites Woolworths as one of her points of exploration, and some years ago I saw kiddie g-strings for sale in the children's department, alongside the princess dresses and toys.  (This was given the disturbing label of 'corporate pedophilia' in a report by The Australia Institute in 2006.)

Nevertheless it is not clear where Watkins is taking the trajectory of this idea: not as far as Cindy Sherman who mutilated Barbie & Ken in one of her 2007 shows, for example. Neither is her Snow White tracing back to the pre-Brothers Grimm story, therefore by-passing recent versions in which the sensuality and horror have been carefully toned down, or stripped out altogether. 

The original Briar Rose tale of folklore shows us a much darker side to the Snow White Disney character. The writer Angela Carter re-told a collection of these myths in her book 'The Bloody Chamber', as did Tanith Lee with 'White as Snow'. Both were unafraid to take our hands, lead us into the wood and leave us there to see what really happened. 

Placed just above the stairs, Watkins' 'Snow White series 1, 2 & 3' has the fair skinned lady in various states of falling down (picture above), but there is little re-telling here as the yellows, blues, reds and pinks are just as one finds them in Disney's story. However, Watkins does take us into some dark places with 'Scissor Sister', 'Return', 'Bottom's Up' and 'Flower Power' all showing a Barbie with her head pushed down to the floor, her ass up to the air, legs open vulnerable and prime for violation. 

There are some interesting works on cardboard using package tape and pages from children's colouring books alongside paintings.  'Still Waters Run Deep' makes one wonder what, if anything, will come up out of the paddling pond as the young girl plays with a toy boat, her hands immersed into the water, a snake tongue menacingly licking down from the upper left corner. 

There was also cleverness in the choice of material with 'Table Dancing Barbie' giving a painting of wide open legs and upper torso upon an actual wooden table top (below left).

In the title piece 'Don't Look Now' (above right) a disproportionate baby is surrounded by garish colours, bobbles and lipsticks. On the far wall behind 'Animal' depicts a crawling baby in black bikini bottoms and over sized sunglasses with graph paper, sickly green splashes and chocolate doughnuts to the right.

'Ancient and Modern' has baby bent over, her doll vulva exposed, her head twisted, a benign King Kong to the right. Next door 'Maternal Roll' has a seemingly anorexic Barbie, her face erased by a thick daub of paint with a gurgling, naked, fat baby on her thighs.

'Barbie & Ken series 5' shows Barbie part obliterated out of the painting by Ken's dominant form, his stride towards her assertive; he's got her and he knows it. We see her hand extended holding out a red fruit of seduction.  So, who has who? 

'Barbie & Ken series 4' places the celebrity couple in a car, the red fruit now a ring, proudly displayed on Barbie's finger. Ken looks away from her bored; she is his trophy date.  One wonders if Barbie has fallen from grace in series 1 as she lies ungainly by the car, her skirt falling down to reveal her legs.

'Dark Bunny' is like placing a Thornton's chocolate rabbit into a child's nightmare scape; impossible in many ways not to link it to a Donnie Darko/Curse of the Were-Rabbit hybrid and the whole 'bunny terror movement' in film that seems to have lately moved on to sheep!

Cathy Watkins certainly goes some way to 'subvert the cosy comfort of time-honoured narratives' as it states in the forward of her exhibition. Meanwhile upstairs at Hilton Young is a collection of large, impactful pieces by Henrietta Dubrey.  The block colours and foreground shapes in 'Transparent Red', 'Happening' and 'Languorous Rhythm' produce a strong physicality and immediately call the mind - and stomach - to attention: though 'Road' changes that with its mainly black canvas. 

Clare Wardman has a similar message though told quite differently.  There is also work from Rose Hilton, Maurice Cockrill (RA), Melanie Miller, Karen Wade and Gareth Edwards.



Linda Cleary