Over a period of eleven years, Cathy Coëz's work has slowly evolved from drawing to sculpture. The ceramic medium, which she discovered somewhat by chance in 2007, initially gave her the opportunity to put together murals in three dimensions called Clay drawings or Porcelain drawings. These highly graphic works are closely related to her previous silk screen printing work. It is only later, when she switched from working on wall surfaces to working on horizontal plane, that the artist definitely gave her production the status of sculpture. Through the Bicephalous series (2009), she focused on a single object, manipulated it, played with associations of forms (through affinity or contrast) and already initiated her move towards a more sculptural dimension.
In the Scenes series started in 2010, the formal duality at the core of the Bicephalous series faded and gave way to an accumulation, dreamed as exponential. The artist would find kitsch China porcelain figurines in flea markets and confront them with geometric shapes thrown on the potter's wheel in the workshop. In Before war (2010) for example, one can see a quartet of coaches, already out of breath because of the heavy burdens they carry, and seeming about as much at ease as the figures in Pieter Brueghel's The Parable of the Blind.
Wartime (2010), the artist’s first large-scale sculpted work - 1800 geometrical shapes thrown on the potter's wheel and 68 coaches - refers to the very short but intense moment that precedes the battle, this fraction of time before the next massacre begins, from the bygone era when soldiers actually stood in front of each other, face-to-face on the battlefield. The presumed fragility of the terracotta forms, contrasted with the violence of the impending fight, offers itself as a metaphor of the absurdity and madness of mankind in its quest for power, funny and chilling at the same time. This mutation of the kitsch figure swings between alienation and rebirth, not without humour. These Coëzian camouflages reveal the artist’s fantasies of combining two languages, and stem from her appetite for the unusual.
In 2011, following an invitation to work on the theme of clothing by Michel Harcourt (curator of the exhibition The art of appearance, the appearance of art at the Venice Biennale), the artist realised Gold 837. She chose the two-piece black suit as the basis for her work, quintessential emblem of social success in the contemporary male-dominated western world. Envisaged as a framework, this symbol is enhanced with 837 porcelain shapes turned into an exoskeleton. The rigorously geometric organisation of these many pieces underlines the imperturbable and calculated nature of the ambition symbolised by the black suit. The gold colour is chosen for its ambivalent nature, a vehicle for both attractiveness and arrogance, two weapons necessary for any ascent. Considered as both a physical and a psychic protective element, the garment reveals the fears and fragilities of the society it embodies. With Gold 837, the artist goes over the top and tests the limits of clothes, these objects with such a heavy meaning.
In 2012, the artist initiates A hundred tears. This first participatory project will be echoed a few years later by the project The true faces (of the artist). The idea sprouted by chance one day, as the artist was riding her motor scooter and felt a tear running down her cheek from the cold winter temperatures. She then had the realisation that a tear is not necessarily the result of sadness or pain, but can instead have different explanations. This diversity in the causes for tears seemed to be an interesting point from which to start her exploration of the theme.
The first stage in the project took place outside the artist’s studio, as she asked a simple question to a hundred people: What is the last thing you cried for? The answers revealed very intimate testimonies which, by creating a bond with the outside world, became the artist’s source of inspiration.
The second stage consisted in summarising each testimony with a single word. The third stage was the transformation of these hundred words into a hundred sculptures, thus turning a written language into a sculptural one. Twenty colours were distributed between five pieces each. Looking at the work as a whole, it becomes apparent that one colour never appears twice in the same column or in the same row, thus contributing to the overall balance of the work. The artist developed a new language through this process, which allowed her to confront the emotional and social environment to which she belongs, and to question her own language by interpreting people’s intimacy in a contemporaneous context.
For A hundred traumas, her second participatory project, Cathy Coëz asked a simple question to a hundred people : What was your worst trauma? From there on, the process was identical to the first participatory project, except for the approach to colour, with a black satin monochrome being chosen, in order to convey a dramatic effect in a symbolic manner. As the subject matter was a bit darker than with A hundred tears, this series sometimes revealed a difficulty for people to express personal matters. It led the artist to her next series, A hundred conversations, where fantasy replaces testimony.
Here, unlike A hundred tears and A hundred traumas where a link was established between the artist and the outside world, the exchange becomes fictional and fantasized. For each sculpture Cathy Coëz is inspired by the works of artists from the XXth and XXIst centuries, sculptors for the most part. She approaches each artist by drawing inspiration from either their overall vision, or one work of art in particular (so long as this choice reveals an iconic aspect of the artist's vision).
The intention is to develop an imaginary lexicon for the different forms that contemporary sculpture can take, and for the artist to establish a dialogue between herself and other artists. What are the symbols of contemporary sculptors? How do we recognize them? What is their strength? What is their immutability made of? How do they function together? Could this directory thus created be likened to a new alphabet?
The result is a collection of a hundred sculptures, each one recognizable as Coëz, but also clearly imprinted with a reference. Each piece symbolically embodies another one and establishes a link with it.
As the artist’s fourth participatory project, A hundred memories recalls a theme previously explored since it is based on the answers given to one simple question: What is your favourite memory? The hundred very diverse answers given allow the artist to continue her exploration of new figures and new colourings of ceramic.
As the fifth and final opus in a series of works inspired by events alien to studio work, A hundred realities is based around events that took place in the near or distant past, of a historical, political or even regional nature, and which have moved the artist in one way or another. The novelty in the choice of subjects seems to have naturally induced a variation in the selection of material. Clay and porcelain make room for other materials such as metal, resin, concrete, sugar, found objects, polyurethane foam, wax, glass and copper and this variation in materials thus enriches the visual terminology.
As in many of the artist’s other projects, the treatment of colour is liberated and distances itself from traditional approaches. The enamel is paired with marker pen, spray paint, India ink, pencil, gold leaves and foil stamping.
As a response to the gravity found in A hundred realities (2014), the artist starts work on A hundred dreams as an exploration of dreams that could (in another world) replace our reality. The research carried out to feed into this work (and particularly piece # 38 Peace, inspired by a disassembled and therefore unusable piece of ammunition), fascinated the artist, literally. Submerged by the unimaginable diversity of forms of ammunition discovered on the Internet, the artist set aside her work on A hundred dreams to achieve A hundred deaths (2014), then Two hundred deaths (2014) then Three hundred deaths (2015) and finally Four hundred deaths (2015). Each of these sculptures is made of a collection of a hundred pieces of ammunition, all inspired by existing objects and arranged according to codes close to those followed by collectors of ammunition. The variation in colours and shapes is boundless and, through this variety, the artist tried to show the incredible care (and accompanying concern for aesthetics) shown by humankind in engineering instruments of death. Here, the imagination is abysmal.
Inventory 216 is a series of 216 bludgeons in oak. They are made from photographs of existing weapons found on the Internet. Shapes and proportions are meticulously respected during hand wood-turning. The oak is left bare, without any artificial colour. Its softness and its tactile nature are contrasted with the brutality of the subject matter. Through its highly drawn and formal nature, this panoply of objects questions humanity’s capacity and clear taste for self-destruction.
In 2016, the designer Eric Beauduin invited the artist to share his taste and know-how in a pertinent collaboration that gave birth to unique pieces. Through the exhibition In my arms, a marriage of the intimate and the obscene, the duo offered a singular vision of the world. The designer’s favourite material, leather, was an attractive and novel element for the artist, as she saw it first as animal skin before allowing it to become fantasy material, by associating it with the war related objects that she had been creating for a few years, especially as part of her four Hundred deaths series. Eric Beauduin and Cathy Coëz shared the same uninhibited connection to material through manufacturing objects and applying know-how. The combination of animal material with vegetal and organic materials (leather, oak, clay) stimulated the creation of pieces with the potential to trigger unusual thoughts.
2017 saw the beginning of a long series of political portraits. Some are made with unconventional tools to say the least, a bludgeon, a slingshot, a firecracker ... all objects directly related to the subject matter. The apotheosis came with The dreamteam, a set of thirteen portraits. Other works such as Homo Balisticus, The Encounter, Craftman of Tomorrow, Game over or French touch operate as a catharsis for the artist.
In Prehistory 19 small golden portraits are peacefully lined up on a steel beam. The combination of preciosity and brutality of the materials is intriguing because of its contrast. These are in fact portraits of despots from the time of their childhood, lined up chronologically according to the historical events that accompanied their characters once they became adults, with Vladimir Putin in the lead and Leopold II closing the procession. The steel beam, an architectural and construction element, suggests a solid and stable environment. It also evokes a railroad rail by its outline, a metaphor for the extermination of a people. These figures, inseparable from their base, constitute a universal timeline. The work questions the shrewdness of our gaze, when faced with something embodying innocence at first, and then History in its most tragic dimension.
With The Twilight Zone, the artist’s chosen topic is diplomacy and the role of the media in dealing with recent events. The artist investigates, as a form of jest, the recurring mechanisms that seem to govern us. Three dictators killed by the US government - Saddam Hussein (2006), Muammar Gaddafi (2011) and Osama bin Laden (2011) – are each made to wear the headdress of a Hollywood movie icon: Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. This gives us, respectively: Lauren Hussein, Marilyn Gaddafi and Elizabeth bin Laden. This combination of show business and politics lifts the veil on the current ambiguity of world governance, through a vision which would have to be a joke if it was not in fact real. This is comedy in the face of violence as a vast masquerade.
In The Dreamteam, thirteen political figures from the front pages of the papers form a team. Each portrait is moulded with great care before being bludgeoned (straight out of the Inventory 216 series) in a more or less controlled manner. This final and definitive touch, a brutal and unequivocal gesture, revives the issue of gestures in artistic practice. It is also akin to a “ready to go” impulse. In spite of appearances, this act builds more than it destroys, since it is embraced as such in the final artwork. Each head is covered in bright colours glitter, a material unrelated to ceramic and diametrically opposed to the subject matter, the portrait of oppressors. The colours are chosen for the way they match each personality. This rainbow ensemble is a final and not so hopeless nod.
It was also in 2017 that the artist created Cosmos, her first in situ work in a public space, when the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles invited her to work in the Saint-Fiacre chapel in Charleroi, Belgium. During her first visit, the artist discovered a place of worship abandoned and highly vulnerable to vandalism. The prospect of installing a sculpture – and therefore one or several objects - seemed very risky to her given the fragility of her favourite materials. Moreover, working on the space itself rather than simply "decorating" it with a Coëz seemed to be a much more interesting experience. In this context of decaying religion, her thoughts turned to notions of ruin, destruction, recycling, restoration and reconstruction. How could decay be converted into magnificence? The colour gold - and its strong symbolism in religious art – seemed particularly well suited to offer a rebirth. The idea of a monochrome coating for the locale as a metaphor for a new skin gave shape to this renewal. The gate serves as a border and delimits this new golden space, a symbol of heavenly light.
In 2018 the artist was invited for the second time to create a work of art destined for the public space as part of the exhibition Fluide 2018 in the municipality of Thuin in Belgium. Singing in the pain is inspired by the industrial past of a place in Thuin called Chant des oiseaux, a former forge’s dumping ground converted into a recreational area. For this assignment the artist designed debris, recycled ceramic waste "produced" in her workshop in order to “build deconstruction”, and then coupled it with the figure of the bird as a symbol of freedom. The golden ensemble tends to reappraise the atmosphere of the site with an optimistic touch.
This same year the artist create The match. Small in size, this work will allow the artist to take an important step in her journey. The match was born of a random coupled with an impulse that freed the artist of technical requirements and a certain delicacy. It is by having a quick look at the sketches of a notebook of projects that the artist decides to interpret one with a little bit of clay, without thinking, and in a record time of a few minutes. Seduced by the hilarious appearance of the result, she finds here the starting point of a new style, liberating and exciting at the same time.
After The match, the two projects Peripheral matters and The true faces (of the artist) can be seen as a synthesis in the artist's journey, which does not end a period but rather adds an additional milestone. These projects reconnect with the concept of participatory project, and are directly anchored in the artist’s daily life.
Peripheral matters is rooted in a lack of simplicity and spontaneity in the execution of work stemming from a technical environment that has become upsetting or even suffocating. To overcome this deficiency, the artist chose to carve the bust of sixty-four people who supported her work. She imposed two strict constraints on herself in order to be free: the busts are realised with a kilogram of clay, in 15 minutes watch-in-hand. The raw and straightforward result produced under these conditions offers a different touch which brings a new stone to the artist’s building.
With The true faces (of the artist), the roles are reversed and one hundred participants, selected according to their professions, succeeded each other in the artist’s workshop to realise her portrait under the same conditions, one kilogram of clay and 15 minutes watch-in-hand, despite their laymanship. The idea is for people who have never touched this material or ever created a carved object to have the opportunity to produce something, in this case a sculpture. The goal is to excel oneself and create outside academic rules. There is no value judgment, and no piece has been discarded because the notion of failure does not exist in this project. Here, dexterity as a quality in a work of art is swept aside by a lightness and humour which could claim some inherent artistic value.
The current project The Three Graces is clearly inspired by The true faces (of the artist). Three busts were chosen among this series of a hundred, to be reproduced on a larger scale. The most detailed attention is given in order to obtain a result that is truly faithful to the original. The interest of this work lies in transcribing minutely and conscientiously an instinctive style. Here, Beauty, Charm and Creativity, three concepts embodied by this figure of Greek mythology, will be gently disembodied.
The Three Graces is already the outline of the artist’s next production.
Brussels, September 2018
Cathy Coëz is a French multidisciplinary artist. She lives and works in Brussels, Belgium. Her artwork has been internationally exhibited in galleries and museums and is part of public and private collections.