Permindar Kaur: The Room

25 January - 25 February 2023

Writing on Permindar Kaur's recent solo exhibition at The Art House in Wakefield the art critic Hettie Judah observed: "Blending the soft with the spiky, comfort with threat, the domestic with hints of something wild, Permindar Kaur's sculptures explore the subtleties of belonging." Since her emergence into the British art scene in the early 1990s, Kaur's practice has embraced incongruous dualities. In her work the domestic is both a place of shelter and threat. Motifs such as beds, cushions and childhood toys took on a more surreal and disturbing quality through Kaur's manipulation of scale and juxtaposition of materials. 


In her work 'Tall Beds', shown at her solo show at Ikon Gallery in 1996, stark metal ladders lead up to beds that were perched high up. The jaunty patterning of their single mattresses was at odds with the precariousness of the space allowed for the imagined sleeper. Other works in shows from that time were populated by simplified cut-out brightly-coloured fleece figures, sometimes falling down, sometimes impaled to the wall. In one work, 'Out of Breath', exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1999, an oversized inflatable mattress hovered on the floor incongruously and oddly threateningly in between two small teams of fleece figures wearing crowns and boots pinned to the wall. 


As well as those two institutional shows, Kaur also showed in The British Art Show 4 (1995), as well as group shows at Queens Museum of Art (New York), MOCA (Sydney) as well as British institutions such as Towner Art Gallery, Cornerhouse, Wakefield Art Gallery and Mappin Art Gallery. And then Kaur took a ten-year break from the art world, returning relatively recently to the studio to pick up a practice that has remained remarkably consistent. For her new show at Niru Ratnam Gallery, Kaur is presenting a recent work 'Untitled - Bed' alongside new wall-based reliefs made from copper and steel titled 'Copper Drawings' as well as further wall-based works that combine fabric surfaces and figures along with metal embedded detail.


Whilst Kaur's work has tended to be interpreted in terms of its imagery, with references to the uncanny, the home and the ambiguity of cultural identity, one element that has been perhaps overlooked in the importance of materials in her work, the versatility she has in their use, and their role in generating those meanings mentioned here. All of her sculptures and installations are handmade by Kaur from raw materials; there are no ready-mades here or fabricators at work. Kaur's 'Copper Drawings' were the result of her accidentally welding copper to steel in her studio. Here the incongruency of dualities is embedded within the material; copper and steel have different melting points and it is difficult to coax the materials to join in a way where neither dominates the other. That they are shaped into figures adds another layer; the fragility of the lone figure is in contrast to the alloy they are made from. That fragility is heightened by the way the metals interact on the surface of each work, seeming like scars or wounds on the simplified figures. Here duality and the tension between two states is both within the material and in the imagery of the works.

Readings around identity, the domestic and the uncanny are still very possible with Kaur's new work. But the insistence on the specificity of materiality that was present, but perhaps not so picked up on in her work from the 1990s and early 2000s is now more insistently present. In this sense we should perhaps start to re-think our approach to Kaur's work and start to think through it as a response, recasting or deliberate complication of Minimalism, undercutting that movement's founding myth of white men working with industrial materials. Kaur's work takes that founding myth and like artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi and Carmen Herrera  interrogates it through both cultural identity and gender, without reproducing Minimalism aggressive male self-righteousness. Belonging might be a concept that we might initially associate with who we are and where we find ourselves, but in another sense it is about belonging to a wider understanding of art history and its canonical movements and structures; how does one assert that one belongs when you're expected not to?