The essence of what you see – the art of Catherine Pilgrim
“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” – Lucian Freud
The physical act of holding a pencil highlights the multi-layered relationship we have with knowledge. We use it to connect, to understand ourselves, to play with shading and lines. Do the crossword. Chew the end. Tick the box. The choices made whilst wielding this communication device can be fleeting bursts of intuition or sometimes they will grow slowly in the uptake, a strange balance between our forward trajectory and the times we actually manage to stop. We gather our resources, look both ways and then walk in a new direction, or perhaps the same direction with an entirely new way of seeing.
Catherine Pilgrim is an artist who’s not as interested in diverse meanings as she is in using the pencil as a tool for being fully present, to literally just see. She’s made definitive choices through her travels and has landed in a place that celebrates the line, in how the light and shadows fall, what they develop into and what this means for us subjectively. Drawing is central to her core, and as her outrageously good Ginger cake takes us straight to the heart of things, I discover this wasn’t always the case.
“I didn’t draw as a kid”, she states ironically. It was a jumble of frustration and no confidence, yet the intense desire to draw was a means to an end, the more she trained the more exciting and frustrating it became. Her life in school was split between Australia and Malaysia, and then she worked four jobs to get to London at age 17, seeing loads of art along the way. The almost protestant work ethic (her father was a Presbyterian Minister) and a strong resilience that grew from these experiences set the stage for art school. Yet a combination of the impatience of youth and not enough training in technique at a school embedded with post modernist teachings was the challenge; this was a time when it wasn’t popular to learn technical proficiency, the interest was in more concept based art.
It was just at the time when Victoria College of the Arts offered Catherine Pilgrim an undergraduate place in the print making department that an exchange opportunity to go to Washington showed its face. Here she was able to work without the distraction of part time work and lived on saved funds and a small scholarship. Amongst the over packaged supermarkets, swipe card food and extended visits to the gluttony of New York’s 1994 mass culture, she did 5 times the amount of drawing, worked alongside the masters students and was fully engaged in an extremely hands on printmaking department that came complete with a lithography guru. Her Australian studies gave her a good grounding in etching, but the timing of being exposed to lithography at the same time as skilling up her drawing gave Catherine Pilgrim the departure point she needed. A few years after her US stint and, with a New York based John Cage exhibition securely fixed in her memory, the grief linked to the death of her father started the gradual process of detaching from the intellectual associations within her art practice.
Lithography is the great grandparent of offset printing. Bavarian limestone is the foundation, it’s based on the repulsion of water and oil, and the guts of how ink lands on the paper is all about the mechanics. Surfaces are worked laboriously, the chemical reaction happens on the stone. Then it’s ground off and the whole process starts again, a cycle of surface and reaction. Catherine pointed me towards a representation of this process, cleverly documented in a short film called Idem Paris (2013) by surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, who fell in love with this way of working; the distinctive sounds of rock hitting machine, the mechanics and hiss of the cogs and drums turning. There’s a stunning tactility in the stone preparation that lends itself extremely well to drawing.
Lithography is one of the most technically driven processes in art making and makes for a healthy juxtaposition with the drawings made by Catherine Pilgrim. It gives added depth to her work that strengthens the poetic quality of the intricate drawing of subject and the contemplative space surrounding it. The detail is hard to get in this type of print; there is joy in the replication of what she puts on the stone.
Pilgrim’s objects are often enveloped in whiteness, there’s space around her work, restful places for the burden of our technological eyes. “To feel that sense of empowerment with my drawing is wonderful, the drawing has always been so central to my work and it still is”, she says, “When I talk to my students, I ask how is the light falling on the object and what’s going in that tiny little bit in there and how can I capture that to eventually see what it is?” Her passion and enjoyment when working with people shows that her treatment of still life is not just about perspective and temporality. There is a personification of fruit, capsicums are embodied, essential raw ingredients are celebrated and yet there is a stillness that makes you feel like you are trapped in the very same space as the spider you see before you. She pushes the simple straightforward nature of the object to its limit.
This year has been spent in an informal residency with Castlemaine’s Buda Historic Home & Garden, where Catherine has been investigating the family histrionics and their mutual relationship with the garden. She’s obsessed with the fabrics and folds that represent the dichotomy of what is both hidden and visible (“A little bit of obsession is a good thing!”) – a theme that’s intrigued her for years. The exhibition will zone in on the metaphors of the women who lived there and the stories around them, culminating in a solo show curated by Beverly Knight, at the Castlemaine Art Galley in March 2015.
“I’m feeling that having the support of Beverly and the Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne is incredible and has freed up time for me to focus on my practice and teaching”, says Catherine. Inspired by art teachers of the past who remove all preconceptions and as much cognitive thinking as possible, her popular drawing groups and retreats started early 2014 as a result of the Buda Project. Sharing skills with intimate groups works best for this artist, who believes in a nurturing environment where space is created for meditative response to the detailed and abstract reality of things.
The conscious decisions made as we move forward and the stones underneath form the lines that we draw. The work of Catherine Pilgrim shows us that it is what it is, a meticulous take on reality, where taking away any loaded meaning and focusing on the abstract essence of what we see will enable a voice we may not find otherwise.
And of course there is always cake.
Catherine Pilgrim has exhibited widely since 1994 and has an upcoming Drawing Retreat at Newnorthern Hotel in Castlemaine on October 13 – 17. Her work is included in public, corporate and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Geelong Regional Gallery, Castlemaine Art Gallery, Perri Cutten, and National Australia Bank. In 2011 Catherine completed a Master of Fine Art (Research) at Monash University. Her research was based on the subjective process of ‘capture’ that occurs in making a representational image. Catherine lives and works in Central Victoria, Australia. Artist site – catherinepilgrim.com
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, performance maker, sound artist, radio presenter and a past editor and contributor of Lit Anthology Going Down Swinging. She currently presents Turn Left at the Baco on Castlemaine’s MainFM and her current performance project is called #wanderingcloud.