Friday 30 September 2022
Brian Catling (1948-2022)
Brian Catling (1948-2022)
Upon learning of the passing of my dear friend Brian Catling on Monday 26 September I was moved to dig out the Directory of Artists 1975 that Alexis Hunter and I made to accompany the open studios event we organised at SPACE in 1975. In place of an artist’s statement Catling provided a quoted account of Scapulimancy – a form of divining for food performed with the specially prepared scapula of an animal, “more can be said about [his] constructions and… general direction by implication than by description.”
“…the shoulder blade is stripped clean of meat by boiling and wiping: it is then dried and a handle of wood is made for it. It is then held briefly over hot coals; the heat cracks the bone along isobars of 300°C., and free carbon is released, a precipitate of ash. The scapula is then held in a position of predetermined orientation with the topography. The white bone is a tabula rasa of the hunting territory and the cracks and burn spots are the directions to be followed in pursuit of game.”
At that time I didn’t really know Catling yet, but revisiting his statement now I’m struck that it reads like a passage from his Vorrh trilogy of novels (2012-2018).
Catling perhaps became best known over the last 10 years over his life as an author of fabulous, visionary prose, writing daily and turning out a series of novels at a pace – The Vorrh Trilogy, followed by Earwig which became a feature film directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović released earlier this year, and most recently Hollow.
Catling has written for as long as I’ve known him, but in vivid, evocative fragments. He only began writing prose at length later in life, and once he did he said it just poured forth. He would rise 5am every day and write in bed for the first few hours of each day.
Catling was a polymath: an artist, a performer, a sculptor, a painter, a poet, a writer, and a professor. When we first met he was producing skeletal forms akin to armatures in burnished, burnt, rusted, steely materials. He entwined these materials with words and performance, as in Lair (1987), the first show we made together. Lair was made from parchment, Perspex, metal and feathers with a few gold coins. Beneath the meshed metal of top step of the fire escape stair that led to the gallery, catling welded a plate of steel engraved with the pattern of a carpet, where it remained, rusting, for some years. After crossing this threshold visitors were obliged to remove their shoes.
In 1991 we made At The Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, and published Soundings: A Tractate of Absence. He wrote:
“The lighthouse is empty, deserted, saturated in absence, an island at the edge of the flickering glacial rim of the new city: the carcass of a cyclops, its eye extinguished and removed.”
The work is emblematic of his preoccupations with light and dark, with extremely site-specific ways of working and revealed preoccupations with the mythological cyclops (in 2014, when I was awarded my OBE, he painted my portrait with a single, central eye) and with practices, symbols and rituals connected to Christian faith. Speaking aloud but alone in the lighthouse, Catling brought to mind a monk imprisoned in his cell. The devotional, religious trajectory in his work was visible in his 2013 commission to design and produce a new processional Cross for St Martin-in-the-Fields. The Cross was fashioned from three pieces of wood tied with string and then cast in aluminium and gilded in white gold by Rebecca Hind.
In 1991 Catling became a teacher at The Ruskin School of Art, where he remained in post until retiring in 2017. Working alongside colleagues including Jordan Baseman, Richard Grayson and Oona Grimes, he inspired a generation of students including artists such as Milly Peck, John Walter, Holly Slingsby and Nathaniel Mellors who featured Catling in his Ourhouse films (2010 – ongoing). It was sad that he didn’t get to see Mellors’ current exhibition at the gallery, I think he would have been proud.
We made 6 shows over the years, including Were (1998) and Antix (2005) at our Mile End gallery space, QUILL TWO (2011) at Dilston Grove (now Southwark Park Galleries), and in 2019 CUDDY in our Webster Road space in Bermondsey. It was during Were that Catling began to paint using egg tempera, something which he continued in the ensuing years. He was elected a Royal Academician in 2015.
Catling was a presence. A person who would seem to appear and disappear, donning a pinstripe suit and conjuring magical acts of artistic alchemy, performing at night, vomiting in buckets for Nathaniel Mellors or pissing from the pulpit in Antix. He was a storyteller whose work spoke its own special language, quite outside of anything else.
Brian Catling was a true artist, uncompromising and sometimes, but not always, a role model.
He is survived by his fourth wife Caroline Catling and three children: Jack Catling, from his first marriage to Susan Catling, and Flossie and Finn from his second marriage to Clare Carswell. Catling was also married to Sarah Simblet, and had a significant relationship with Rebecca Slingsby (née Hind), though they did not marry.
Words and reflections by Director Robin Klassnik, put into order by Deputy Director Tim Dixon, Matt's Gallery, London, 2022.