A terracotta corpse is broken into fragments and scattered across the floor of Dilston Grove, like a body spat from a peat bog. The eight mud-brown pieces, collectively titled Daddy Issues (2019), look shrunken in the vaulted gallery – a former church – but they are life-size body parts. Dismembered limbs lead towards a raised stage where an altar must have once stood. A leg, bent like that of an athlete ready to sprint, has been butchered at the thigh; another is cut at the calf. Collar evokes the spectre of other bodies by sculpting five feet in total, which are all shod in the same leather shoe: the pointed and wrinkled slipper of a dancing jester.
Beth Collar’s provocative titling dares me to read the piece confessionally, as autobiography – that irritating fate of so many women’s works. Though it’s tempting, I refuse to. In any case, she names a spiritual daddy who presides over the show – an early renaissance sculptor named Niccolò dell’Arca, whose terracotta diorama, Compianto sul Cristo morto (Mourning over the Dead Christ 1463–90), obsessed her for many years. She finally visited Bologna last November to see the work up-close: six life-size figures that circle the corpse of Jesus in various states of emotional distress. Dell’Arca’s men are tearful but dignified, while his women are the tools of melodrama. Mary Magdalene, in particular, appears to have burst into the scene on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her dresses are billowing, her hands splayed out in shock, her mouth open in a giddy scream.
Renaissance art, like pop culture, employs women as empathy machines. Dell’Arca’s depiction of female agony made him famous; his critics were suitably gripped by his renditions of spiraling biblical celebrities. (His Mary is a kind of Renaissance Britney.) The use of clay for serious art was novel. Considered pedestrian – the material of domestic objects, of pots and bricks – clay was revived in the 15th century by sculptors like Dell’Arca because of its malleability. Supple and yielding, it could be used in the service of a new kind of realism – to depict softer drapery or faces in sensational expressions of pain. (Two centuries later, artists would deploy ivory teeth, glass tears and human hair for the same effects.)
Near the pulpit at Dilston Grove is a pelvis. From certain angles, it looks like a carnival mask: whorled and owlish. A few steps on I find the torso, face down with something strange growing from its back – a gothic flower made of bones, a bloom of clay ribs and joints. Like Dell’Arca, Collar leaves her sculptures unglazed, burnishing their surfaces with the back of a spoon before firing. The wet, leather-brown complexion her process gives to the material has an odd, macabre realism.
‘Daddy, I have had to kill you,’ writes Sylvia Plath in her hypnotic poem ‘Daddy’ of 1962. Plath ex-presses the kind of extreme emotions that Dell’Arca sought in his terracotta faces, as he milked female grief for spectacular effects. But Plath’s daddy is full of harshness and hatred and she possesses an unsettling elation when it comes to his death. Her words are alive with hurt and pain, but also excitement, control and triumph. ‘They’re dancing and stamping on you / They always knew it was you / Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through’, read the poem’s victorious closing lines. There is no clay-softness to Plath’s passion, only a grinding rage. In Collar’s work, there’s also an atmosphere of vengeance. She takes satisfaction in the sacrifice, in patricide, in the ugliness of her ghastly dead daddy. I leave with the sense that it’s Dell’Arca’s body that’s been milked, exhumed and exhausted.
Beth Collar, 'Daddy Issues', runs at Dilston Grove, CGP London, until 28 April 2019.
Main image: Beth Collar, Daddy Issues, 2019, installation detail, Dilston Grove, London. Courtesy: the artist, Matt's Gallery, London, and Southwark Park Galleries (formerly CGP); photograph: Damian Griffiths