Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood has always been a queer, wondrous hall of curios. Since Cathie Pilkington’s characters moved in, the mood has grown ever more strange – and her art has, she says “enthralled and appalled” children and adults alike at this new London Art Show. Cathie, a graduate from the Royal College of Art, lives and works in Bethnal Green – right by her creations.

Singerie is the first model I came across in the museum. Seven monkeys sit along a table, their feet peep out under the white tablecloth, dangling from plastic chairs. They’ve been having a party. Bunting and balloons trail on the floor, and there’s a mess – used cups and spilled food. It looks like fun. Such fun, in fact, that a little toddler tried to launch itself into the scrum.

But Singerie isn’t simple fun and games: some of the monkeys, peculiarly, wear skin-coloured masks. Cathie explained: “It’s always been important to me to communicate to people on lots of levels. It’s interesting to see how the children all think they’re really fun and lovely while the adults think they’re really creepy and unsettling.

“Sangerie means monkey trick. It’s an old French genre of artwork where animals ape human behaviour. The work is a kind of satire, which is funny and sad”.

Moving into the museum, I began a treasure hunt for her work in among the permanent objects and artefacts, and found many more funny and sad, sweet and sinister figures. Placed unobtrusively in the glass display cabinets, the three-dimensional creations are almost too well curated. A light blonde, fat-headed blue baby holding a dark red ball lies next to a dark red Victorian-era pram with beige trim – the colours are a perfect composition. A Punch and Judy toby jug sits unassumingly nursing a swaddled baby in a cabinet of creepy, almost crude puppets.

The artworks fit in so well because they were inspired by the objects that surround them. Over the past decade Cathie has been visiting the museum, and the toys see sees exhibited are often disquieting.

Cathie said: “The idea that the museum of childhood is a jolly place shouldn’t really be promoted”.

She promotes, through her artwork, what she sees as an honest view of the world: “I don’t think you can make art without sinister undertones, because life is not straightforward, and my experience of life is not without its darkness. If you look at any history or any children’s tale there’s always that dark undercurrent. It is interesting to play off against ideas of sentimentality”.

Cathie has to contend with sentimentality in order to create her artwork too. Unusually, she blends ready-made elements, such as a dolls arm, into creations in jesmonite, wood and clay. To acquire these elements, she said: “I’m constantly bargaining with my daughter – what doll I can have and what doll she can keep. It’s a fluid arrangement we’ve got going on, good fun”.

For more images go to Flux Magazine

The exhibition is on to May 5th

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