British sculptor Permindar Kaur occupies a special and important place in narratives of British art from the late 20th century to the present. She emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, a decade preceded by the 1980s. I make mention of this obvious chronological fact as it has an art historical bearing on how we might read particular – and I would suggest, widely underappreciated – aspects of Kaur’s work. While being careful not to caricature art practices of the 1980s, it is very much the case that the decade produced, and is remembered as producing, a new body of British artists whose work was characterized by new articulations of cogent messages oriented towards the social sphere. Artists beyond number, including painters, sculptors, printmakers and others produced compelling bodies of work that spoke of and to a slew of questions and concerns. Chief among those were matters relating to identity politics, manifestations of diaspora, cultural heritage and the challenges of artists, many of whom came of age and developed their respective practices at a time when they and the communities from which they emerged believed themselves to be particularly vulnerable to the worst of what the 1980s had to throw at them. The nature of that decade brought forth a range of innovative artist practices that above all, spoke of and to, the nature of the times.
Kaur’s work from the early 1990s onwards was however decidedly different from the practices that it had in many respects come to dominate. There was in her work a pronounced, determined and we might even say refreshing sense of play that existed in marked contrast to the earnest, serious and worthy aesthetics with which many artists of that period were associated. While large numbers of artists were seemingly intent on ensuring that social messaging was a pronounced aspect of their practice, Kaur, in evident dissimilarity, was instead responsible for producing work of altogether contrasting orientations. It is difficult to do justice to descriptions of Kaur’s work, as to describe it as playful, or other than serious, implies that a certain frivolity or mannered amusement lay at its heart. This was most assuredly not the case. Its playfulness, if indeed the word is appropriate, relates to its profoundly open-ended yet simultaneously highly charged social and cultural readings. Certain manifestations of humour and wit distinguished Kaur’s practice, although again, language might let us down, as humour and its associations with merriment are decidedly not what her work evoked. Not then and not now. The subjects of Kaur’s work must of course be appreciated as being particularly entwined with the technically challenging and highly skillful ways in which she made her work. Thus, Kaur’s work achieved the improbable: nuanced, open-ended cultural, visual and aesthetic enquiries made tactile by breathtaking, challenging and almost audacious technical skill and resolve. In sum, a certain enigmatic, intriguing and boundary-pushing use of materials and subject matter was what set Kaur’s work apart from so many of her contemporaries.
… Thus, the artist who fabricated steel and plate glass structures is the same artist who stitched bizarre-looking felt creatures that were so effective in their construction and resonance that they pretty much took on lives, characteristics and associations of their own. Perhaps Kaur herself wishes us to comprehend her creatures not so much, if at all, as inanimate objects, but rather as things capable of assuming verb-like or human-like characteristics. Perhaps that’s why the exhibition described… by [Richard] Cork was titled Interlopers, and an earlier outing of Kaur’s figures was called Dudes. The artist was certainly on to something when she gave her cohort of teddies the plural name of people who become involved in a place or situation where they are not wanted or are considered not to belong. Or when she described her advancing blue and red crowned figures (an installation made for the Port of Tyne International Ferry Terminal, Royal Quays, North Shields in 2002) as Dudes. The colloquial expression, an informal, somewhat admiring term for a stylish, urbane male individual seemed to encapsulate very well the figures’ human-esque attributes. Furthermore, there is a wondrous attachment to materiality in her work. It has about it copious evidence of the highly skilled use of her materials and it is this, which in part at least, accentuates the unnerving, disconcerting and above all, highly engaging dimensions of her pieces. From stitching to welding, from carpentry to fabrication, her processes of production ensure a profoundly transformative gallery experience for her audience.
The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, ‘Home: The Place Where We Dwell’, a text in Home | Permindar Kaur, catalogue (pages 29 - 39) to accompany Permindar Kaur: Home, 5 Howick Place, London, SW1P 1WG, 12 December 2020 – 2 July 2021