Essay

Stubborn altars: Cat Fooks’ furnitures

Deadweight Loss: The Value of Making

Did you see the photo, back in 2014, of the kid who climbed into a Donald Judd sculpture at Tate Modern in London? The little shit was caught in the act by an appropriately indignant bystander, whose photo of the moment was shared, in a spirit of appalled fascination, by art museum people round the world. There in the photo stands Judd’s Untitled (1980), a mighty stack of machine-clean units. There stand the kid’s aunt and uncle, blithely failing to intervene. And there, in the bottom unit of the sculpture, lies the kid in her woolly winter hat – a young ‘art- lover’ treating a ten-million-dollar minimalist sculpture like a hipster playhouse or Ikea bunkbed.


Professionally speaking, I too am appalled when people climb into the artworks. But I admit to a certain unprofessional admiration for the Judd- disrespecting youngster. Commentary on this sculptor dwells so insistently on how his work ‘activates’ and ‘defines’ space phenomenologically, you’ve got to hand it to the kid for wanting to get in there to test the work’s capacity as a cubby. Incidentally, her misbehaviour illuminates two further facts about classic or heroic minimalism. First, if you’re wealthy enough, you do get to nap in a Judd; recent auction estimates for one of his austere daybeds run to about $100,000. And second, even if you can’t afford a Judd, you inhabit a world that’s been thoroughly ‘minimalised’. Blonde wood, brushed aluminium and neon tubes are ubiquitous today in upscale retail, imparting an aura of pricey austerity to everything from sneakers to laptops.

It’s a long way from Donald Judd’s sculpture to Cat Fooks’ painted furniture. But not so far from the kid in the Judd to Fooks’ stubborn-satisfying objects. Of course, Fooks is a conscious and canny artist, not a child stumbling into a scandal. But her furnitures (as I’ll call them) jostle value in way that reminds me of the London incident. Just as the youngster had the cheek to treat art as if it were furniture,
so Fooks has the gall (and I like this word gall, with its suggestion of intemperate energy) to treat furniture as art. By this I don’t mean that she’s seeking to redeem or revalue ‘mere’ workaday objects, lifting them clear of their dull daily functions and into a higher life. I mean that she does art to things in a way that intensifies and strangely glorifies their thingness. The sloppy sophistication of her paintings combines in these works with a determined and endearing at-odds-ness. My pleasure, when I see one, is inseparable from the question: What is that doing here?

There are echoes, at times, of other artists who collide furniture with the culture of painting. I think of New Yorker Rachel Harrison with her paint-smeared props and scaffolds, or the killer colourist Jessica Stockholder with her stacked and collaged plastics. But where their work feels urban and robustly American (I imagine big-box hardware stores and industrial suppliers), Fooks’ furnitures feel New Zealand-suburban. Simply naming the objects takes me back to a domestic world
I thought I’d forgotten – a realm of sideboards, tallboys, whatnots, china cabinets and tea trolleys. These are objects from the time before ‘built-in storage’ became a prestige point in real estate. And they exist, today, in spaces that you won’t be reading about in the property section: soggy student flats, estate-sale bungalows, second-hand traders who offer layby.

These are also objects from the time before furniture could be easily replaced – before global trade delivered flat-packed shelves and desks direct to your door. In this older economy, objects were expected to do long (often life-long) domestic service, which meant that they might be mended and repainted many times before their final retirement. Fooks emulates, accelerates and productively deranges this logic, often colonising one sturdy and tolerant ‘host’ object with splints, plaques, facings, knobs and what might be called chronic ornamentation.
It always looks good: I need to say here that Fooks seems incapable of making an uninteresting object. But it’s also crucial to say that looking good is not what this artist is chasing. The constant adding and mending and layering isn’t formal – it’s psychological. It’s as if she is trying to shore something up, to get her objects ready for action. She’s dressing them up, maybe armouring them up, for the unfamiliar world they’ll be entering.

The main way Fooks prepares her objects for the world is, of course, by painting them. And in doing so she reminds us that, though ‘the art of painting’ has prestige, paint as a medium doesn’t. In the magazines and websites where architectural taste is currently projected, paint has a lower-class status. Kudos emanates instead from ‘natural’ stains and ‘timeless’ (and horrendously expensive) stone finishes. Paint as Fooks uses it, by contrast, has the feeling of a sealant and concealer – a medium that holds things in place and covers things up.

Her use of high-gloss recalls us to the realm of the cheap domestic makeover, where tins of unused house paint are excavated from the garage to give the old cot or spare room a spruce-up. And then there’s the pressure of time implied in the way she keeps adding layers of unglamorous colour (community hall cream, fondue brown, Band-Aid pink...). To look at Fooks’ furnitures is to sense an artist reluctant to let them go – one who needs to feel they have very thick skins before they can depart her studio.

There’s something here about independence and protection that relates to Fooks’ artistic trajectory. Consider the 17 years Fooks worked before being given her first exhibition. Consider the stamina and resolve required to work for so long without external recognition. Bitterness often overcomes artists who labour unrecognised for decades. But Fooks, as we meet her in her work, has acquired much more cherishable qualities: independence of character, a sharpened sense of the absurd, and a belligerent (to use Richard Fahey’s perfect word) commitment to the needs of each artwork.

When I look at Elkhorn Slough (2020) for instance, that’s what I see: an independent. It’s a trolley clad with frames and ornamentation that say, semi- sarcastically, Art, but which is nonetheless ready to roll into the white cube and argue for its own existence. It carries with it all its needs, like a prepper on a perilous journey. It seems determined not to lean on anyone or depend on any prior assumptions. It’s the work of an artist who paints on shelves and cupboards because they are freestanding containers. She needs them to hold what she knows about art; she needs them to hold her ‘painting’. And in the process of being loaded and coated, the containers themselves become eloquent. They stand beside their former functions as Brecht said actors should stand beside their roles. And they stand for – and stand in for and up for – the affections and principles of their maker.

I feel this in the tottery Grapesicle (2020), where what look like wounds become alluring. I feel it in The Mittens (2020), which seems to say ‘I’m a mess, but I’m my mess’. And I feel it especially in the anti-monument that Fooks calls Chocolate Hills (2020), which is as hilariously arresting, in a white-cube context, as a sculpture with a child wodged into it. A poor chair nobly shoulders a poop-coloured chest of drawers, whose sea-shelled escutcheon nonetheless emanates a touching sense of pride. And the whole top-heavy ridiculous arrangement projects an unexpected dignity, as of someone who dressed up too much for a party but is determined to stick to their guns.

It’s this sense of hard-won self-sufficiency that moves me most in Fooks’ practice. When you first meet her furnitures in gallery settings, they may seem awkward and unfitting. But don’t imagine for a minute that they are waiting for your approval. They’re sure in their skins of ugly-glorious colour. They’re mobile altars to artistic independence. They got here on no one’s terms but their own and that’s how they intend to keep going.

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Inspired by the value we ascribe to the objects that surround us in daily life, Deadweight Loss explores contemporary making at a moment when ideas of craftsmanship and the handmade have returned to consumer popularity. An obscure economic term, ‘deadweight loss’ refers to the point in the law of supply and demand where an equilibrium between goods in the market and buyers cannot be met. This results in a market imbalance. Three artistic approaches by makers Moniek Schrijer, Laurie Steer and Cat Fooks speak to this tension – between the work being made and it finding a willing home.

Cat Fooks was born in Hamilton in 1976 and completed a Bachelor of Visual Communications, majoring in painting, at Unitec, in 1999. Seventeen years later, her first solo exhibition, Pleasant St, was held at Anna Miles Gallery. Summoning effrontery and guts on a regular basis is not straightforward. Cat Fooks’ time in the studio is about ‘courting the out-of-control’. Early on she tuned into reconstitution as a means of searching, repeatedly pillaging, cropping and reapplying elements of her previous output and incorporating studio accoutrements such as frames, stretcher wedges and paintbrushes. Somehow, in a ballroom-scale basement in Onehunga, Fooks’ paintings acquire audacity during an arduous mode of production.

Justin Paton is head curator of international art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. He is the author of McCahon Country (Penguin Random House New Zealand and Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki, 2019) and has recently led Together In Art, a social project developed during the AGNSW’s closure due to COVID-19 (see togetherinart.org). Justin’s column ‘A Longer Look’ appears regularly in Art News New Zealand.

Cat Fooks, Camel's head, 2020. Sculpture, mixed media. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

Cat Fooks, Chocolate Hills, 2020. Image: Samuel Hartnett