Artist Penny Goring: “David Bowie showed me there was another world” | Sculpture
Jhe floor under Penny Goring’s worktable is awash with filaments and scarlet fabric fragments. Shards and scraps cross the carpet in crimson swirls, as if blood had flowed from his sharp scissors and seeped onto his bedroom floor in the world beyond.
Meet her art – soft sculptures resembling haunting dolls; paintings taken from a brutal dream world – it is easy to impart an image of Goring as an otherworldly creature from a fairy tale. We meet on a rainy day in late spring, not in a haunted forest, but in the very real place of Surbiton Railway Station. Walking in the rain as buses pass, we talk about not being able to wear high heels anymore and her time as an art student in London in the early 1990s.
“When I close this door and am alone, the rest of the world disappears,” she tells me, sitting at her small work table above the blood tide of threads and textile scraps. “Everything I’ve ever done has centered around feelings. It’s easier to communicate emotions by inventing forms that show how you feel. His work is variously funny-sad, sexy-sad, heartwarming -sad, politically furious and utterly bizarre. There are his spirit-like objects of anxiety, which attach and hinder the body, and the explicit drawings of Extreme Naked Yoga. A series of beautiful book-like images of violently entangled women’s tales – Amelia’s works – are reminiscent of a mutually destructive relationship.
Goring’s soft sculptures are meticulously crafted and sewn by hand. “I like labor-intensive things that I do carefully over long periods of time. Everything is sewn with this tiny little needle,” she tells me as she pulls a sharp tool from the belly of a bear stuffed with pins. “This teddy bear is always by my side: his name is Relapse Ted,” she said, replacing him. “I was in a treatment center in 2005 because I’m recovering from an alcoholic.”
It’s the week before sculptures and paintings, old and new, are collected from Goring’s flat and delivered to London’s ICA for the installation of Penny World, a 30-year-old investigative exhibition. You might read this title as Penny v World, “because I’m not comfortable in this world,” she says. But also as a play on Poundland: “Everything I do uses materials I can afford, and my budget is very tight.”
She leans on this poverty of means, using food dyes, markers and fabrics from old clothes. The heavy-looking golden plague doll, covered in breast-like boils, is made of stretchy fabric rather than cast in bronze: “I couldn’t afford it,” she says. “I just want to do things that I can do in my room, without anyone else’s help. I like to think that I sneakily make fun of big boys and big gestures, because she might be monumental but she’s in golden Spandex.
Her wraparound environment for the ICA features a lino floor (“I grew up with fitted lino because mom and dad couldn’t afford a carpet”), a warm magnolia mural, and bubble script captions from 1970s style.
Before the show, Goring’s house is unusually stuffed. She hung works on the walls for me to see. The scarlet Hell Doll hangs above her bed, her arms severed into stubs, a black heart like void where her face should be, and long curls like tentacles or flames for legs. Other sculptures rest on shelves, mummified in layers of cellophane against moths and dust. In the hallway (but not the show) is a huge print of an image posted to Goring’s cult Tumblr feed in 2015. A model in a green fur coat sits with her legs apart, her head concealed by a rough cutout Goring’s face. The lines “pragmatic vagina / romantic clitoris” hover on the surface.
Growing up as a misfit “in a really tough part of south-east London”, Goring became an “expert in truancy”. His savior was David Bowie. She joined his fan club aged nine and saw him play at Earl’s Court aged 10: “He showed me there was another world, apart from this hard place and scary where I was getting beaten up and being told I was a freak.”
Arriving at Kingston School of Art in her late twenties, she discovered artists who explored embarrassing and overwhelming feelings. “Frida Kahlo: she was like my gateway drug,” says Goring. From there, she found Eva Hesse. Then Louise Bourgeois: “She is so close to my heart. I feel such an affinity with his work. A stack of neat student sketchbooks are stacked on the windowsill. Goring invites me to explore them. The seeds of his current work are already evident. Even the title – Penny World – appears.
Goring did not take a conventional path (if any) in the art world. She is not comfortable with face-to-face meetings. (Those swirling legs on the Hell Doll? It’s panic, melting feet and ankles into unnecessary jelly.) Despite the support of tutors, including painter Peter Doig, she didn’t get a place in a class. master’s degree after art school. “I was always very shy and lacking in self-confidence, and I was drinking heavily by the end of my senior year,” she says. “I just resigned myself, fortunately enough in the end. I made my peace by continuing to do my job anyway.
But buying a computer for his daughter’s schoolwork in 2009 introduced Goring to the participatory culture of Web 2.0: a way to make his work privately public. What came out were not pictures but words. “While I was painting, I heard huge swarms of words flooding my head. I kept trying to ignore them and they wouldn’t go away. For six months, “they built up and got stronger and stronger. Just torrents of stories. I sat down and started writing them down.
She posted snippets of text on Twitter that other writers identified as poetry. Goring was embraced by the online writing community, first joining the Year Zero Writers collective, then falling into the sharper, lowercase, wonky self-fiction world of the “alt-lit” movement. Here Goring encountered “a whole new way of writing and communicating”. Alt-lit “used Facebook as a poem. Everything was poetry. She again engaged in the visual realm, combining text with found images, making videos and gifs. “It wasn’t until the scene ended that we all realized we were part of a huge, sprawling universe called Weird Facebook: we were that little piece of a poem.”
Thus, it is through writing that Goring reenters the art world. A video in which she recites her 2013 poem Fear (“I’m afraid I won’t get what I’m afraid I want. / I’m afraid of what I want. / I’m afraid I won’t get what I need , even less of wanting. / I’m afraid of loneliness , drunk defeat, drugged. / I’m afraid of arthritis…”) was selected by the curator Rózsa Farkas for a collective exhibition at the ICA. After Having seen his paintings and sculptures, Farkas championed Goring through his new commercial gallery, Arcadia Missa.
To coincide with Penny World, Arcadia Missa is releasing two volumes of Goring’s writings: the poetry collection Fail Like Fire and a 2016 text, Headfuck the Reader. “She changed my life,” Goring says of Farkas. “I felt I wasn’t chic enough to be part of the art world. She helped me see that it was something to let go of. Because sometimes you can carry baggage for too long, if you don’t examine your thought processes and trace things back to where they came from.
I ask what it’s like to live surrounded by your own work: each doll or painting apparently bears witness to an emotional gutting. “It’s hard to live with them, basically, that’s the simple answer,” she decides after reflection. “Great statement dolls, I’ll be happy when they’re not here.” Nevertheless, it can hurt to let things go. She describes feeling “pain” when Farkas recently sold a favorite drawing.
Goring has mixed feelings about participating in the brutal public arena of the commercial art world. There is a series of drawings called Art Hells. “I don’t think of an audience when I do,” she says. If she imagines “people to please, impress, or entertain, my mind goes blank, I feel really embarrassed, and I can’t do anything worth doing.”
Nevertheless, it is also a source of sincere joy: after decades of precarious living, she can support herself and her daughter through art and poetry. “To think that all the weird stuff I’ve done all my life can now be my way of making a living is very special. It’s like an eye opener.”