First published: Spring 2015
Impossibly intricate, nearly-abstract renderings of hair incised into scratchboard; baroque cut-paper collages sourced from porno mags; an immersive environment of carved and painted trees meticulously encrusted with Germanic kitsch; a decade-long exhaustive photodocumentation of food vans; luminous fin-de-siècle paintings for post-punk record covers; a faux-museological recreation of a neo-paganist secret society initiation chamber; a reenactment of the doomed trek of the Donner Party (minus the actual cannibalism) – unlike many artists classified as “outsider”, Catharyne Ward has passed through a succession of distinct phases more appropriate to the career of a mainstream post-studio conceptualist like Mike Kelley or Rosemarie Trockel.
Surgenesis, 2008, china clay and India ink on board, 16 x 20 ins., 40.6 x 50.8 cm, courtesy of the artist
Yet, despite attending the Royal College of Art in London (albeit in ceramics) and hanging with Eduardo Paolozzi, she has managed to avoid being shortlisted for the Turner Prize or gracing the cover of Artforum. So far. Such conventional accolades would not be hard to imagine, given the ambition, timeliness, cross-disciplinary panache and sheer visual beauty of the work, but Ward’s forceful idiosyncracy, authentically subversive political undertones and psychological candour – not to mention her labour-intensive craftsmanship – have kept her outsider credibility intact.
Perhaps the most well-loved works in Ward's diverse oeuvre are her scratchboard drawings of cascading, contorted masses of hair, which have been likened to the work of Madge Gill and Austin Osman Spare. The somewhat disreputable hobbyist medium – a subtractive, even sculptural, drawing practice where a black India ink surface is scraped away to reveal an underlying layer of white china clay – packs a graphic punch, while coming equipped with a whole set of symbolic connotations.