Issue twelve: Brian Catling 1948—2022
The artist, writer and teacher Brian Catling died at the end of September following a long illness. In the mid-1990s I was taught by Brian at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford University. We later became friends.
There is a recurring image in his work: hands, masks, mirrors or liquids obscuring his eyes and face. It seems apt that I find it hard to see the words with which to describe him. Inimitable, a one-off, singular: all the standard tokens of eulogy smell like weak tea. He made a book in 1990 titled The Stumbling Block, Its Index, which he described as “a direct attempt to write sculpture, to focus on an invisible shapeshifting mass, to try to see its contours, its material, its volume, in the different light of its manifestations.” His writing seemed physical. He’d weld, hammer, melt and pour language as if he was working with lead and copper not verbs and adjectives. There’s a line from one of his poetry books, Vorticegarden, that reads: “The cairn of books marking me.” That’s what his language resembled. A cairn, a weathered standing stone marking the landscape.
It was the same with his sculpture and performance art. Brian collided together rock, clay, feathers, inks, and other base or ancient substances to show how strange the world could be. He was hands-on in the workshop, fashioning objects and mechanical contraptions to use in his performances. “You have to let the hands think,” he said. “You have to put your hands in the material and see what happens.” He had a strong east London accent and imposing bulk—like an avant-garde Ray Winstone—and knew how to put both to powerful effect. It was spiced with a dash of music hall showmanship and conjuring know-how. His room presence was sculptural, monstrous when he wanted it to be.
But then there were his delicate paintings. Small, square panels holding beautiful scumbles of royal blue, coral, gold and cadmium red. They depicted figures, often a cyclops, a symbol he was fascinated by. He painted landscapes, buildings and weather systems merging in and out of one another. Not long ago I told him that they reminded me of Odilon Redon, or works by Paul Nash. It didn’t do them justice. These paintings existed beyond language. If they needed words, comparisons, why bother being paintings?
I remember visiting him at the Ruskin School sculpture studios about 15 years ago. When I arrived he was in shirt sleeves working something up on a lathe. “Let me make you some coffee,” he said, and clamped a Bialetti pot to a retort with a Bunsen burner shoved underneath. The coffee came out thick as melted tar. “That’ll keep you going! Come ‘ave a look at what I’ve been up to.” We went into his cluttered studio where he showed me a Victorian rifle that appeared to be growing a horn from the end of the barrel, like a bio-mechanical bayonet. It was a startling object, something tumbled from sleep’s hinterland. Interviewed for a BBC Arena documentary about Brian last year (B. Catling: Where Does It All Come From? made by Geoff Cox and Andy Starke), the fantasy writer Alan Moore said, “I think a lot of Brian’s stories, a lot of Brian’s art, probably has its origins in that ambiguous area, the half-remembered dream.”
Brian was a foundling, adopted and raised by working-class parents in postwar South London who encouraged his creativity. He grew up with dyslexia, tics and a severe stutter. In the book Words Fail Us: In Defence of Disfluency, Brian told author Jonty Claypole that he had “made performance pieces about not being able to speak.” The stutter made him “fascinated by all abnormalities of behaviour. I have to be careful: I can find myself following odd people round supermarkets because I feel a kinship.” His art education was at Walthamstow School of Art and the Royal College of Art, followed by labouring jobs and teaching. As an artist Brian also seemed orphaned, of fogged ancestry. The dark, the macabre and the unexplained attracted him. He was fascinated by medical and scientific anomalies. Mutations were creative. “Life breeds / in any mistake / given half the / chance,” he wrote in his poem ‘Pleiades in Nine.’ The 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre-Dame starring Charles Laughton was a major influence, as was the 1958 Revenge of Frankenstein. He liked uncanny atmospheres. The stories of Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James could be found buried in his foundations. William Blake too. Brian never wanted to be part of the “car showroom” art world and supported himself through teaching. He published poetry, and accepted commissions for performances and exhibitions which took him to Spain, Japan, Iceland, Norway, and Australia among many other countries. His art was never fashionable and he didn’t care. Being out of step was a strength. “Once you take out power and money,” he said in the BBC film, “you get a fantastically rich palette to work with.”
I recall going to see his piece Antix in 2005. It was staged across 16 nights at Matt’s Gallery in east London. Brian had travelled to the gallery from Oxford via boat. (Matt’s was then located alongside the Regent’s Canal. Its founder, Robin Klassnik, championed Brian’s work for many years.) Antix was an inventive, disturbing work of theatre. There was nobody making work like that in London, or anywhere that I knew of, for that matter. He lit the room with cold fluorescent strip-lights, and built low, veneered bench seating around the perimeter of the gallery. In the middle was a raised dais, with a judge’s bench and a minimalist pulpit affixed to one of the gallery’s supporting pillars. Brian, dressed in a dark suit, would play with a variety of objects, as if engaged in a private conversation with them. There was a hinged wooden dunce’s cap, a mechanical ribcage, a jaw-bone, a copper-coloured silk scarf. Brian was an adept physical actor, skilled at dissembling his body into character. Where at one time he would often curl, slow and bend his body in performances, like Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, here it was upright and dangerous. The effect was to make you feel as if you had trespassed into the chambers of a malevolent magistrate or priest, and you were being tolerated rather than welcomed into the space. The mood was unnerving, frightening even, and the show ended each night in the staged abduction of an audience member, who would be spirited into a secret trapdoor. It was thrilling, like watching a horror film. I wrote up Antix for frieze magazine afterwards, describing Brian as “part-Kray twin, part-dispossessed Modernist sculptor, inhabiting a Hammer Horror nightmare that press-ganged lost British music hall traditions of illusionism and ventriloquism into the service of morbid corporeal obsession.” It was hard not to tip over the top when writing about his work. That was part of the pleasure.
There was a group of us who became friends at the Ruskin School in the 1990s, and who remain close to this day. We’d all been shaped by Brian’s teaching. We liked to imitate his enthusiastic exclamations in our best tobacco-gruff Catling accents. “Extraordinary!” “Wonderful!” We’d try to mimic the gnomic advice he’d give out in tutorials, coming up with doggerel lines such as “I pour ink into my eyes and strike flint over your drawings in order to discover the motivation of fire,” or some other pale imitation of his language. It came out of fondness. We found him modest, generous, funny (though by his own admission he could also be “bloody-minded”), and he encouraged all of us in our work, whatever form it took. He helped us to trust in our imaginations. To follow our own noses. Make our own scene and screw the popularity contest. If you can’t find the word for what you want to express, pick a different one, enter a room you’ve not been in before.
I’d occasionally meet Brian for lunch at the King’s Arms pub in Oxford. He’d become an emeritus professor at the university, and a Royal Academician, enjoying the time and prestige these honours allowed. I suspect he liked the theatre and ritual of the university, and felt at home among libraries and museums. For a while he’d also been part of a performance art collective, The Wolf in Winter, and hosted an avant-garde performance night at the Mildmay Club, Stoke Newington, called Cabaret Melancholique. The old South London sorcerer would turn up to the pub in his pinstripe suit and black sunglasses, always cheerful and chatty. Brian usually had a story he wanted to share about a curious object he’d come across in a dusty institution, or some tale of the weird to put you off your fish and chips lunch. (For instance, with the screenwriter Tony Grisoni he’d made Vanished, a film based on accounts of “Gef”, a talking mongoose with human feet who had allegedly haunted a remote house on the Isle of Man in the 1930s.) He was writing and painting daily. It was over one of these lunches that he told me, almost with a sense of astonishment, that he’d written a novel. It was called The Vorrh, a work of fantasy about a sentient forest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a story about artists and monsters. The proto-surrealist writer Raymond Roussel and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge were both characters, as was a cyclops named Ishmael. Brian said the book had taken him by surprise, that it flowed out of him. When he had finished writing it, he began a second volume, then a third. He had plans for other stories, more novels.
It was, like all Brian’s work, forged from rich and rare metals. Alan Moore was an early champion. He described The Vorrh as “easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” The book was an immediate success. Now in his early sixties, Brian was embarking on a new, late-career voyage as a cult novelist. The Vorrh trilogy was completed by The Erstwhile and The Cloven. He produced a grotesque, comic novella called Only the Lowly, and Munky, a ghost hunting story which Brian’s friend Ian Sinclair described as “a delirious blend of terror and pantomime.” His haunting gothic tale Earwig was made into a feature film by Lucile Hadžihalilović. The poetry was collected into the volume A Court of Miracles. A play, The Resurrection of Bobby Awl, was staged at the Edinburgh Festival. There was talk of TV adaptations. Brian was now doing book tours of the USA and receiving praise from the likes of Philip Pullman, Tom Waits, and Jeff VanderMeer.
I last saw Brian in person at the end of 2021, with his partner Caroline at their home on the edge of Oxford’s Port Meadow. He was always full of surprises. Until that day I had not known about his friendship with the great folk singer Shirley Collins. The BBC film about Brian was soon to be broadcast and he told me of his delight at the fact that—how perfect—Ray Winstone had been filmed telling a ghost story for it. We traded stories about the pilgrim routes that cross Oxfordshire. A collector of antique firearms, he showed off a pair of Gatling guns he’d recently acquired. In a corner of the living room was the mechanical rib-cage sculpture I remembered from Antix. He got it whirring away for my entertainment. We talked about about Margaret Watts Hughes’ eidophone. Brian enthused about a group of new egg tempera paintings he was working on and pressed into my hands a copy of his latest novel, Hollow. Set in medieval Europe, Hollow tells the story of a group of monks at a remote abbey who come to suspect that paintings made by Hieronymus Bosch are the source of chaotic forces stalking the land. Meanwhile, a crew of mercenaries transport a mysterious creature known as the Oracle to the abbey across a dangerous mountain range, and a group of women form an underground resistance cell to confront the occupying Spanish Inquisition. Hollow was a page-turner, it was a black comedy, and of course, it was a story of artists and monsters. The last message I received from him was this past summer, and it was headed: “FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT.”
The day Brian passed away I had been writing, at work on a novel. A friend texted me with the news. What was strange was that I had been, at that moment, in the middle of a scene based on the human anatomy classes we had to take at the Ruskin School. Writing is usually slow and laborious work but for the rest of that week the language and ideas came in a torrent. There was something even more odd. Days beforehand I had been rummaging through a box of old photographs and had chanced upon an image of Brian I had taken in the late 1990s. The photo—just a casual snap from a disposable camera—shows him stood next to our old art history tutor, Malcolm Bull, at a social function in the Ruskin studios. He is in full academic clobber: suit, a gown with scarlet trim. Peering over Brian’s right shoulder is a life-size model human skeleton, the kind used for anatomy classes. Its skull is looking off to the left, into a full-length mirror propped against the wall. When I examined the skeleton’s reflection in the mirror more closely, I noticed that it was looking directly into the camera, like a memento mori. In the tradition of a character from an M.R. James ghost story, I might be tempted to cordon those things—the photo, the flood of words—in the safe, explicable realm of coincidence. Brian would have laughed and exclaimed “extraordinary!” For him it would’ve been further evidence of magic and mystery at work in the universe.
—The music of Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker: an oasis of calm.
—I’ve no idea if Brian Catling knew John Smith, but I was happy to learn that the ICA London is staging Introspective (1972-1922) devoted to 50 years of the filmmaker’s work. Personal favourite: The Black Tower, in which the film’s narrator becomes convinced he is being pursued by a mysterious, sinister building.
—I love a local history. Lucy Sante is one of New York City’s finest living historians, and in her new book Nineteen Reservoirs (with photos by Tim Davis) she tells the surprising, fascinating story of the city’s water supply network. Its engineering “meant that twenty-six villages, with their farms, forest lands, orchards, and quarries, were bought for a fraction of their value, demolished, and submerged, profoundly altering ecosystems in ways we will never fully appreciate.”
Björk just released a new album, Fossora, and a podcast series taking listeners through the making of her albums all the way back to Debut in 1993. Here’s the South Bank Show on the making of her 1997 LP Homogenic. If you can ignore the appearance of Bono, you can enjoy footage of intimate performances—the version of ‘Unravel’ accompanied by harpsichord is beautiful—along with interviews with percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the late Mark Bell of LFO, and archival video of her early post-punk bands Tappi Tikarrass and Kukl.