Artist Penny Goring: “David Bowie showed me there was another world” | sculpture – 71Bait

TThe floor beneath Penny Goring’s workbench is strewn with threads and fragments of scarlet cloth. Splinters and shavings are carried across the carpet in crimson swirls as if blood had spurted from her stabbing scissors and seeped across the floor of her bedroom into the world beyond.

Encountering her art – haunting, puppet-like, soft sculptures; Paintings sprung from a brutal dream world, it’s easy to imagine Goering as an otherworldly creature from a fairy tale. We meet on a rainy day in late spring, not in a haunted forest but in the very real location of Surbiton Station. As we walk in the rain as buses whiz by, we talk about not being able to wear high heels anymore and her time as an art student in London in the early 1990s.

“When I close this door and I’m alone, the rest of the world disappears,” she tells me as she sits at her small worktable above the bloody tide of thread and scraps of fabric. “Everything I’ve ever done has been about feelings. It’s easier to convey emotion by inventing shapes that show what it feels like.” Her work varies in funny-sad, sexy-sad, comforting-sad, politically angry, and excellently freaky. There are her ghost-like Anxiety Objects that strap and restrain to the body and the self-explanatory Extreme Naked Yoga drawings. A series of beautiful, fairytale-like images of violently entangled women – the Amelia works – evoke a mutually destructive relationship.

I was a visionary for Boudica (2015).  Digital collage.
I was a visionary for Boudica (2015). Digital collage. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

Goring’s soft sculpts are meticulously handcrafted and sewn. “I like labor intensive things that I do carefully over long periods of time. Everything is sewn with this tiny little needle,” she tells me, pulling a sharp tool from a bear’s pin-stuffed belly. “This teddy bear is always by my side: his name is Relapse Ted,” she says, replacing him. “I was in a treatment center in 2005 for recovering from an alcoholic.”

It’s the week before sculptures and paintings, old and new, are collected from Goring’s flat and delivered to London’s ICA for the installation of Penny World, a 30-year survey exhibition. You could read this title as Penny v World, “because I’m not comfortable in this world,” she says. But also as a nod to Poundland: “Everything I make I use materials that I can afford and I’m on a very tight budget.”

She reaches into this poverty of means, using food coloring, felt-tip pens and fabrics from old clothes. Covered in breast-like boils, the heavy-looking golden Plague Doll is cast in stretchy fabric rather than bronze: “I couldn’t afford that,” she says. “I just want to do things that I can do in my room without anyone else’s help. I like to think I’m sneakily poking fun at the big boys and big gestures because she might be monumental, but she’s golden spandex.”

relapse ted
relapse ted Photo: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Her enveloping setting for the ICA includes linoleum floors (“I grew up with fitted linoleum because Mom and Dad couldn’t afford fitted carpets”), homey magnolia wall paint, and 1970s-style bubble captions.

Before the show, Goering’s house is unusually crowded. She hung works on the walls for me to see. The scarlet hell doll hangs over her bed, arms severed into stumps, a black heart like a void where her face should be, and long curls like tentacles or flames instead of legs. Other sculptures lie on shelves, mummified in layers of cellophane against moths and dust. In the hallway (but not on the show) is a giant print of an image posted to Goring’s cult Tumblr feed in 2015. A model in a green fur coat sits with her legs apart, her head obscured by a crude cleavage of Goring’s face. The lines “pragmatic vagina / romantic clitoris” float to the surface.

“It’s hard to live with them, I’m glad when they’re not there” … Goering and one of her dolls. Photo: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Goring grew up an outsider “in a really rough area of ​​south-east London” and became an “expert on cock”. Her savior was David Bowie. She joined his fan club at the age of nine and watched him play Earl’s Court when he was ten: “He showed me that there was another world apart from this tough, scary place where I was beaten up and told I was a freak.”

Arriving at Kingston Art School in her late 20s, she discovered artists exploring uncomfortable, overwhelming emotions. “Frida Kahlo: She was like my gateway drug,” says Göring. From there she found Eva Hesse. Then Louise Bourgeois: “She is so dear to me. I feel so connected to her work.” A neat stack of student sketchbooks is piled on the windowsill. Goering invites me to explore them. The germs of her current work are already visible. Even the title – Penny World – pops up.

Goering did not take a conventional route (if there is such a thing) into the art world. Face to face encounters are uncomfortable for her. (Those twirling legs on the hell doll? That’s panic melting feet and ankles into useless jelly.) Despite the support of tutors, including painter Peter Doig, she failed to get a place on an MA course after art school. “I’ve always been very shy and had low self-esteem, and by the end of my senior year I was drinking quite a bit,” she says. “I just gave up, pretty happy in the end. I have made my peace with continuing my work anyway.”

But buying a computer for her daughter’s schoolwork in 2009 introduced Goring to the participatory culture of Web 2.0: a way to make her work privately public. The result was not pictures, but words. “As I was painting, I kept hearing huge swarms of words entering my head. I kept trying to ignore them and they wouldn’t go away.” For six months, “they built up and got louder and louder. Just streams of stories. I sat down and started writing them.”

Those Who Live Without Torment (Red 4), 2020.
Those Who Live Without Torment (Red 4), 2020. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

She posted fragments of text on Twitter that other authors identified as poetry. Embraced by the online writing community, Goring first joined the Year Zero Writers collective and then fell into the fancier, lowercase, wobbly spelling, autofiction world of the “alt-lit” movement. Here Goering encountered “a whole new way of writing and communicating”. Alt-lit” used Facebook as a poem. Everything was poetry.” She again delved into the visual realm, combining text with found images, creating videos and gifs. “It wasn’t until the scene ended that we all realized we were part of a huge, sprawling universe called Weird Facebook: we were that little corner of poetry.”

So, through the written word, Göring re-entered the art world. A video over which she recites her 2013 poem Fear (“I’m afraid I won’t get what I fear I want / I’m afraid what I want / I’m afraid I won’t get what I need, let alone want. / I fear lonely, drunk, drugged defeat. / I fear arthritis…”) was selected by curator Rózsa Farkas for a group exhibition at the ICA. After seeing her paintings and sculptures, Farkas championed Goring at her newly formed commercial gallery, Arcadia Missa.

Coinciding with Penny World, Arcadia Missa is releasing two volumes of Goring’s writing: the poetry collection Fail Like Fire and a 2016 text, Headfuck the Reader. “She changed my life,” Göring says of Farkas. “I felt like I wasn’t classy enough to be part of the art world. She helped me see that it was something to let go of. Because sometimes you can carry luggage around for too long if you don’t question your thought processes and take things back to where they came from.”

Really (Art Hell), 2019.
Really (Art Hell), 2019. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

I ask her how it feels to be surrounded by her own work: every doll or painting seems to be evidence of an emotional evisceration. “It’s basically difficult to live with them, is the simple answer,” she decides thoughtfully. “Big statement dolls, I’m glad when they’re not around.” Still, letting things go can hurt. She describes feeling “a pang” when Farkas recently sold a favorite drawing.

Goering has mixed feelings about participating in the brutal public arena of the commercial art world. There is a series of drawings evocatively titled Art Hells. “I don’t think about an audience when I’m making,” she says. When she imagines “pleasing, impressing, or entertaining people, my head goes blank, I feel really confident and I can’t do anything worthwhile.”

Yet it is also a source of genuine joy: after decades of precarious living, she is able to support herself and her daughter through art and poetry. “To think that all the weird stuff I’ve been doing my whole life can now be my living is very weird. It’s like a revelation.”

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