Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

Permindar Kaur

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

We Are All Wild Things

Catalogue essay on Permindar Kaur's work for her exhibition Hiding Out at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, 

image of an untitled work

On the way to or from the Djanogly Gallery, we will probably all spot pictograms of the human form in civic signage. Directional signs in buildings and motorway, green or red lights at a street crossing all use simplified figures, largely gender, age or race neutral, which indicate that you or I should follow their guidance. As citizens, we are turned into a simple logo for our own safety and the familiar ‘man digging’ and ‘children crossing’ signs were designed by Margaret Calvert for the purpose in 1963. Permindar Kaur adapts this vivid shorthand for humanity and places her own human ciphers alongside softer little creatures, infants or maybe toys or pets, to set out her paradigms. She reminds us that we are all animals, part of a species but all dependent on and vulnerable to our individual surface protection of skin, hair and nails or clothes as well as matters more innate, cultural and individual.

Maurice Sendak’s marvellous illustrated story Where The Wild Things Are was published in New York, also in 1963, ready to enchant Permindar Kaur as small child and later to be shared with her own children. In just over 300 words and many powerful images Sendak tells of young Max, dressed in his wolf suit (all-in-one pyjamas complete with hood, ears, tail and claws) escaping from banishment to his bedroom for behaving like a wild thing. Max conjures up a forest where the really wild things live. There they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max tamed them. First he urges them to start a wild rumpus but just as suddenly calls a halt. Being really just a lonely and hungry little boy, he travels back into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.

Permindar Kaur’s latest exhibition Hiding Out presents us with a world of humanoids and other creatures within their own protective coverage. She describes her overarching themes here as hiding and camouflage; blocked doorways; the broken and the fixed.

The earliest work in the show, Independence, 1998, is lent from the collection of Nottingham Castle Museum and impales 27 small figures on thin copper poles, hoisting each to different heights. Each figure wears an orange robe, copper coronet and sturdy boots but is pinned with head bowed, like a natural history specimen. Each hangs, with military precision, separate from its brother or sister or comrade; independent, autonomous but now powerless. Elsewhere Permindar Kaur takes these contrasted signature materials, polar fleece and copper, and creates independent and interconnected works. We Are All Animals, 2010, is a series of small creatures, teddy bear or catlike, with pointy ears and a soft fleece. Each has its breed or personality defined by the colour of its coat and a series of individual protections: claws, horns, stiff whiskers, beaks, ruffs or manes of hair. Turbans, 2012, is a series of small heads with copper beaks, blue skins and delicate little copper caps whose shapes suggest the traditions of the East from Phrygia to India. Pinned in ranks, these works are ordered within a grid as if in scientific study, precise and measured and yet another group in a mixture of colours evokes botanical specimens with copper sepals.

Off with Their Heads, 2012, is of the same taxonomy in soft fleece and warm copper where the small blue heads, more egg-like here whose protective caps or helmets have failed to protect them, seem to come from an Alice in Wonderland world in which playthings are executed on a whim:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed 'Off with her head!

The Queen's Croquet-Ground, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865

These works share preoccupations with much of the canon of western children’s literature and fairy tales, like Humpty Dumpty and Little Red Riding Hood, more ancient than Lewis Carroll and Sendak. Like so many more universal myths, Permindar Kaur’s cast of animal and humanlike creatures act out elements of profoundly recognisable fears and needs: protection, disguise, identity, restraint, belonging and survival. In this exhibition a veil or curtain of claws in Clawed Curtain, 2011 separates us from some particular fear of our own or it might be the fear itself. Other works, more obliquely, serve a similar purpose.

In Floor Mats, 2014 nine shadows of the human figure, rubber matting cut to bend and fold at the waist, lie like doormats but they also block our way. They recall the moment in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan when Peter’s shadow is cut off by a closing window, severing his links with his adopted human family until it is sewn back on.

In powerful contrast and change of scale, Untitled 2014, was made especially for the Djanogly Art Gallery. Seven larger-than- life human figures in steel are bent at the waist as if to stretch or exercise in preparation for a performance, which might be to entertain or to parade, defend or attack. All possibilities are in flux and we must negotiate them. The use of steel is in opposition to Permindar Kaur’s usual attraction to copper for her rich vocabulary of claws and horns. Copper’s warm colour (colour is rare in metal’s natural form, save that of gold) recalls the fur of big cats and bears and human skin tones that have layers of protection from the sun. Steel is grey-cold, strong, northern and speaks more of hide or scales while copper, when heated then cooled in water, is able to flex and has a strongly decorative nature. Each copper claw or beak has a seductive yet aggressive appearance, pulling you in and pushing you away.

A major preoccupation in her work over several years has been the notion of camouflage and fitting in, whether in childhood or as an adult. The most explicit series to deal with this theme is Camouflage and one group takes the format of paintings by employing conventional fabric over a wooden stretcher but, in place of paint, three patterned fabrics become a metaphor for three countries each of which has been a home for the artist. Spain, where she lived in the 1990s, is evoked through a gold and blue baroque pattern; Sweden, where she lived with her husband and children, is defined by crisp blue and white checks; the memory of India, her parents’ country, shimmers in rich metallic shades. Permindar Kaur was born in Britain - in Nottingham, indeed - and says she would never attempt to select just one symbolic fabric for England.

Within each textile landscape a small creature is limply suspended, made of the same material, flattening its face to the background and blending in, but disappearing, too, into its household furnishing world. The little creature is also protected by copper claws but, like the chameleon lizard, chooses to hide out in the colours of its temporary habitat keeping its spikes as a last ditch defence when on the move. In another group, the artist has created her own patterns, one of which is has copper bumps on its surface which the she likens to stars or, in opposition, the rash of an illness.

Following this series is a larger group of works Untitled (colours), 2013 where the “canvases” are in vertical portrait format, a size and shape known in the eighteenth century as the Kit Cat. Here, each work uses strongly coloured cotton as the background to its creature, using tone and fabric as an evocation of mood or emotion as well as skin. Taking this concept on to a further stage, in Untitled (Slippage) 2013, the figure that come out from (or disappears into) the fabric is now multi-layered and multi-coloured, with one single green figure swinging out of true. The notion of the layered image is reprised in Hidden, 2013, in which an antlered figure is half-hidden behind loose strips of fabric which trick the eye like a dense forest. The artist has knotted each green strip, again causing a camouflage but also providing a pattern, measure and a rhythm.

Another recent group of works turns away from colour and concentrates on the richness of grey fleece, the fluffy visual equivalent of steel. Polar fleece is a man-made wool substitute (PET) made from the same materials as some plastic packaging and is often made from recycled plastic bottles. For many years Permindar Kaur has exploited its tactile and visual qualities, particularly its association with cosiness, cuddliness, infanthood, soothing toys and comfort blankets. Fleece comes in a variety of textures, some as thick as a sheep’s fleece, and Permindar Kaur has used large grey panels, rug or tapestry-like, as contemporary heraldic hangings. In a crazy baronial hall, these panels might seem to display hunting trophies – the skins of a horned creature, an antlered beast and, the most vulnerable looking of all, an unprotected being but one who is now their abject equal.

The elements of Permindar Kaur’s sculptural vocabulary, almost hieroglyphs, can be read as equivalents to words and phrases. Some are repeated rhymes, some are riffs and some are single exclamations. A large black and grey felt work, Shadow, 2014, takes further the concept of the figure bearing the weight of words. Small human forms are repeatedly cut out of thick protective felt, like a cartoon creation myth, and they all flicker in front of our eyes as the grey felt underneath contrasts with a black top protective layer. A colourful counterpart has bright figures tumbling cheerfully down a wall. Each little individual figure is cut in half then sewn back together, the damage mended but still exposed beneath the playfulness.