Jiggly Bits: On the Sculptures of Caitlin Devoy
Caitlin Devoy is an early-career artist from Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Her sculptures caught Francis McWhannell’s eye with their unusual take on the human body and its politics. He looks at Devoy’s work in connection with Display, her first dealer-gallery show.
My initial impression is of a queer kind of museum. A long, low piece of furniture – resembling both a bench seat and a display case – supports a parade of condiments: squeezy bottles of mustard, cannisters of Tatua Dairy Whip cream, a huge jar of mayonnaise. They’re not the real things but immaculate casts made of pink silicone and black rubber urethane, visibly supple. Tall Perspex boxes are threaded with similar replicas of recorders: equal parts snake and charmer’s flute. A table is topped with a cream can and a rubber jelly or Bundt cake. In another context, such entities might seem innocuous, even banal. But here they have been inspirited, made wondrously weird.
Weirdness is what first drew me to Te Whanganui-a-Tara artist Caitlin Devoy. In June, I stumbled across two of her sculptures in a group exhibition at play_station. Strange out of all proportion with their everyday reference points, the works provoked an enduring curiosity, which ultimately led me to this place: the artist’s studio, populated with pieces for her upcoming solo show, Display. Devoy’s work centres on the human body, a subject at once seductively universal and perilously well-worn, especially in the context of art. She touches on typical concerns: the politics of bodies, how they’re seen, represented, lived in and with. Yet her sculptures possess unusual freshness. She finds quirky ways of framing familiar questions, exploring longstanding phenomena.
A mustard bottle might not look much like a cock, but it squirts sympathetically.
Devoy’s latest works deal with male bodies and their sexualisation. She refers to the sculptures both as male nudes (recalling the nude on the phone as well as in the gallery) and as sex objects. The articles she has cast echo ‘private parts’ in form or function. A ring jelly resembles a butthole, and it gets eaten. A mustard bottle might not look much like a cock, but it squirts sympathetically. Recorders are undeniably phallic, and they are blown, to often cacophonous effect. Embedded in Perspex boxes, the instruments acquire a certain anatomical verity, since penises extend back into bodies as well as out from them. The materials from which Devoy makes her facsimiles reinforce the erotic dimension; they are also used in the production of sex toys and other fetish gear.
I ask Devoy about the lineage of her work. What started it all? She removes the bubble wrap from a nearby object to reveal a 2017 sculpture, likewise titled Display. It noticeably foreshadows her recorder works, Play (black) and Play (pale) (2019), taking the form of a Perspex box reminiscent of a vitrine or plinth. One wall is tinted warm pink, a stereotypically feminine colour, which also evokes naked white bodies. In the wall is a perforation that suggests a glory hole, implying a performance yet to be carried out.
The sculpture burlesques lingering notions of women as things to be penetrated, vessels for carrying children, and providers of support (focused, like museum display devices, on the protection and elevation of entities beyond themselves). Viewed from certain angles, the work almost disappears, alluding to the difficulty of achieving visibility in the art world as a woman. At the same time, it pokes fun at the male figure on which it logically centres. For a man to stick his penis through the hole would hardly be empowering. He would be dismembered, objectified, subjected not only to desirous looking, but also to judgment and ridicule. I’m suddenly struck by another motivation for Devoy’s use of the recorder: its distinctly undistinguished status.
Devoy’s bench work, Have a Seat (2) (2019), similarly follows on from a 2017 piece, Have a Seat, which incorporated the same wooden legs and frame. Responding in part to Barnett Newman’s claim that “sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting”,1 Devoy created a seat of the sort typically found in galleries. The top of the bench was a Perspex trough, which she filled with candy-floss-coloured gelatine. The resulting object, elegantly minimal, read as sculpture and furniture, recalling experiments with both by the likes of Donald Judd. Its relatively small scale and the use of a soft, perishable substance served to counter monumental and robust sculptures made by male artists throughout history.
Have a Seat answered high seriousness with silliness. Devoy intended viewers to imagine, if not to enact, the slapstick consequences of putting the bench to use. Where Have a Seat (2) suggests penetration of the sitter by the seat, its predecessor implied an opposite action: bum plummeting into jelly-pillow, body keeling over as the stuff gave way. The use of a palpably sticky substance enticed violation of the usual gallery prohibition against touching the art. Countless visitors succumbed to temptation, giving the surface a poke, even a gentle slap.
In subsequent works, Devoy sought to further amp up the element of allure. She made her first facsimiles in silicone, beginning with cream cannisters, of the kind sometimes used in sex play, and a fire extinguisher. They proved seductively bodily, mimicking the translucency of skin, the pliancy of slack muscle, and the jiggle of fat, as well as the flop of dicks deflating post-orgasm. Placed within reach of the viewer, they cried out to be played with, an effect reinforced by the actions typically associated with them. Who doesn’t want to squirt whipped cream from an aerosol, or – better yet – make an extinguisher blast all over the place?
Devoy has since redeployed her casts in a number of contexts. In 2018, she incorporated them into a pair of kinetic sculptures, termed ErotoMetronomes. These built on earlier interactive and performance works, such as Dennis (2018), a ‘moon hopper’ with a pendulous faux penis, and BinJelly (2018), which saw Devoy tip a jelly onto a plate, causing it to dance unexpectedly. Not a little suggestive of a ride-on sex device, ErotoMetronome (Cream Dance) included a quartet of aerosols standing on their bases, three upright, the fourth bent over acrobatically, curling to rest its head on the table-top. The structure bounced up and down slowly, like a mechanical bull running out of steam. The casts wiggled, oddly off beat, evoking clumsy dance or sexual partners.
Devoy gets at the splendid peculiarity of our bodies and the things we do with them, emphasising the ways in which sex acts resonate with other performances of daily life: dancing, eating, music-making, excreting.
It was Devoy’s two ErotoMetronomes that I encountered at play_station. Despite the fact that they formed part of a show focused on questions of sexuality and gender, it took me a moment to recognise their erotic connotations. The largeness of the casts obscured their penile nature, while the emphasis on commodity cream and the faintly bovine quality of the display structures had me pondering notions of the dairy industrial complex. It was only when I peered closely and spied specks of dust collecting on the silicone that the penny dropped. I snorted, envisioning a dildo hastily flung into a linty smalls-drawer.
Devoy’s sculptures are not exactly subtle in their suggestiveness, but nor are they explicit. I am reminded of jokes for parents that appear in children’s movies. Kids might well laugh at these works, too, but for tamer reasons: because uncanny copies are always delightful, wobbly things always amusing. For adults, there is an extra pleasure. Devoy gets at the splendid peculiarity of our bodies and the things we do with them, emphasising the ways in which sex acts resonate with other performances of daily life: dancing, eating, music-making, excreting. Things that are fun and things that are funny.
Isn’t there something rather irresistible about a good flop and jiggle?
To be sure, there are also more sober elements to Devoy’s practice. Her emphasis on squidgy bits invites interrogation of pervasive standards of male beauty and virility. Whence all this emphasis on bulk and solidity? Isn’t there something rather irresistible about a good flop and jiggle? Trained from a young age in ballet, Devoy speaks of growing up with the immaculate physiques of male dancers as a norm. At 33, I continue to battle an eating disorder I’ve had nearly half my life, aimed in part at getting me closer to such physiques. Sex and food intertwine in multiple and complex ways.
Perhaps most importantly, Devoy’s works raise questions about touching, the desire to do it, and when it is appropriate. Her mayonnaise jar is made for looking at rather than handling, but no doubt more than a few visitors will sneak in a fondle. I ask Devoy whether the casts are difficult to keep clean. She explains that, like sex toys, they can be given a soapy bath. Dust and fingerprints quickly fall away. It occurs to me that our own bodies are quite different – or can be. Muck is one thing, but other marks are harder to get off. And far too many of us still choose to ignore the clearest of ‘hands-off’ signs.
Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington
15–30 November 2019
All images courtesy of the artist and Millers O’Brien. Header: Caitlin Devoy, Jelly (bleached), part of Be My Dessert, 2019.
1 See, for example, Rosalind Kraus, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, in Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (London: Pluto Press, 1985), 36.