Penny Goring: Penny World
On ViewInstitute Of Contemporary Arts
June 8–September 18, 2022
Penny World at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London spans three galleries over two floors, sharing glimpses of the thirty-year-long career of Penny Goring, an artist and poet who has long worked on the fringes of the London art world, from her early days at Kingston School of Art in the early nineties until today.
We enter Penny World via a sequence of five printed posters that are blown-up image macros created predominantly between 2009 and 2015, a period when Goring was active in the online alt-lit community. These digital collages merge cutouts of the artist’s face with imagery found on the internet (e.g., photographs, paintings, or collages) and punchy captions. Unabashedly raw, unfiltered, and sarcastic, they seesaw between selfie and meme-formats: Penny as the mythical Queen Boudica (I was a Visionary for Boudica ); Penny as a twenty-nine-year-old art student (Deth bone, 2014); Penny as Bianca Jagger in Studio 54 (Bone Dust Disco, 2014); or Penny as the moon (self as moon, 2013). These image macros were also the first artworks that the artist made specifically for an audience—that is anyone with access to her Tumblr feed. In Penny World, nine of these image macros populate the small corridors between the galleries and act as gateways to the artist’s inner worlds, or, as Legs as Betrayers (2022)—which features Goring’s head adorned with a bridal veil on a body with a pair of cow’s legs and a bare bottom—ironically suggests, “WALK […] YOU TO [THE] WRONG PLACES.”1
These “wrong places” set the tone for the remainder of the exhibition and are synonymous with Goring’s inner world. On her Tumblr feed, the artist has previously used punchy three-worders, such as “very carefully wrong” or “evry aesthetic susk,” to articulate this intrinsic intertwining of art and biography. In Penny World, it manifests as a forensic excursion into the artist’s psyche, detailing her internal insecurities in the form of medium-defying self-portraits. The drawing me, me, me, me (1992) shows the artist’s delicate internal state of mind as a vulnerable and malleable body covered with lumps and bumps, while the pink beating heart enveloped in the contorted pregnant body of the painting Inflatable Dress of Despair (Heart) (1992) brims over with personal tensions and traumas. Elsewhere, two limp trees in Doom Tree (2016) and a funeral Pyre (2016), both soft sculptures made from scraps of black velveteen, portray Goring’s grief for her deceased partner (and artistic alter-ego), Amelia, who died from a heroin overdose in 2014. While the fifty or so Art Hell doodles, created between 2018 and 2020, detail Goring’s six-month-long struggle with medication withdrawal and a brief relapse into alcohol abuse triggered by a glitch in the NHS systems.
Goring made these drawings, paintings, and soft sculptures cooped up in her own home, away from prying eyes—doodling and drawing whilst standing at her kitchen worktop, carefully sewing fabric scraps by hand, and laboriously padding these soft sculptures before embellishing them with lace-collars, tassels, or brooches in the intimacy of her bed and living rooms. This also explains the homely Magnolia-yellow wall paint enveloping Penny World. Often found in public buildings, rental flats, or council housing across the UK, this warmer color adds a domestic touch to the ICA’s Nash House.
Time is relative in Penny World. Over the past thirty years, Goring has used a relatively consistent set of symbols or myths, motifs that have permeated her prolific artistic practice from the start and continue to co-exist and cross-pollinate. For example, the smiley faces incorporated in Goring’s studies of abstract paintings from the early nineties return as Anxiety Objects (2017) in her Extreme Naked Yoga drawings in the mid-2010s. Amelia, pictured in the eponymous Amelia Series (2017–18) of medieval-inflected memento-mori paintings of lamentation, also re-appears in the Art Hell doodles between 2019 and 2020. Curator Rosalie Doubal has forgone a chronological hanging and favored an intuitive display, which draws parallels to Alison Kafer’s concept of “crip time,” a non-normative understanding of time reframed to suit disabled bodies. For Goring, work is often created through a laborious and compulsive, yet ultimately alleviative, process of making which takes many months and is dependent on her internal state of mind. This is perhaps also why one body of Goring’s ghoulish life-sized doll sculptures carries the evocative title Forever Dolls (2022).
Before leaving Penny World for good, it is worth briefly delving into Goring’s use of words, poems, and text throughout her practice. A prolific writer, Goring has kept a diary throughout her life, but kept her writing and art practices separate until 2009, when she bought a computer for her daughter’s schooling and joined the alt-lit community online. At the time, she only engaged in writing, and like her image macros from the same period, Goring’s three-worders on her Tumblr feed were her first literary excurses or prompts made for a public audience. Eventually Goring started to incorporate the written word into her art. She made two lo-fi videos in which she anxiously recites two of her poems, accompanied by pixelated footage in Fear (2013) and saccharine synchronized dances, reminiscent of Busby Berkeley films, in Please Make Me Love You (2014). These two videos were first shown at the ICA and marked a return to artmaking. Similarly, Goring’s Extreme Naked Yoga drawings, begun in 2013, were the first to incorporate the written word alongside Goring’s drawings of extremely contorted bodies in popular yoga poses, drawn from fetish-porn websites. Again, these captions include catchy confessions like “and i will say to him: how does it feel to be a fucking poet and he will say: fucking tragic,” or “what doesn’t kill me makes me traumatised.”
Titles are also evocative in Goring’s practice. The self-conscious me, me, me, me of Goring’s eponymous painting from 1992, for example, appears to allude to Kathy Acker’s “I, I, I, I, I, I, I” from one of Acker’s dream maps in Bloods and Guts in High School (1978). Similarly, the exhibition title, Penny World, is a twist on the name of the British variety store Poundland. In 2016, Goring also published a literary self-portrait or prose-poem titled hatefuck the reader, whose first twenty-four pages are based on Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait (2012). It was re-issued by Arcadia Missa for the exhibition.
Penny World is a personal universe of philosophical cause and effect. Replete with the artist’s own versions of therapy pillows and relapse teddies, as well as her therapeutical drawings and paintings, Penny World lends a visual voice to Goring’s personal tensions and traumas—from anxiety and grief to deprivation and manipulation, coupled with disappointment or frustration with the British government’s politics of austerity and its products: restrictive housing conditions, lack of funds, and inadequate therapeutic support. Yet, by following an intuitive presentation in therapeutic form, Penny World does not resemble an intense private trip of the artist. Instead, the exhibition offers a collective space for each visitor to engage privately with the delicate yet difficult themes on display. This renders Penny World particularly resonant in a post-pandemic world ravaged by health crises, wars, and an ever-increasing cost of living.
Tumblr entry on August 23, 2014, https://pgorig.tumblr.com/post/95559250018/legs-as-betrayers-walkin-u-to.wrong-places-in-an#notes