These and other installations have some surface parallels with the sculpture of Cady Noland or Isa Genzken, though those artists’ fashion-conversant cynicism is miles from Ms. Wilkes’s baleful, historically minded sincerity. Here, stains, rust and rips humanize the impassive mannequins, and the frail, armless figure, of indeterminate gender, could have lived a thousand years ago. A more relevant antecedent may be the psychologically intricate art of Louise Bourgeois, on view concurrently at the MoMA mother ship, though Ms. Wilkes takes a less autobiographical, more open-ended approach than Bourgeois did.
Her most moving works are sculptures made of fabric or resin, begun around 2011, which depict stunted and vulnerable figures, often children, alone or in family groups. In an untitled cluster of three from 2012, perhaps a riff on the Holy Family, a child whose soft joints and frayed exterior recall a rag doll’s is crouching to wipe the face of a baby, while an older child, also shabby and scruffy, stands before a wash basin. A later sculpture of a single child, with spindly legs, wears a frayed green shift decorated with an Irish shamrock, but he or she appears fearful, defenseless, with eyes that are no more than awl marks.
Credit Pablo Enriquez/MoMA PS1
In the installation “Untitled (Possil, at Last),” first seen at the 2013 Venice Biennale — its title refers to an old Glasgow pottery factory — a mannequin of a drunken father squats in front of two children, amid stones, old beer bottles and pottery shards. The children seem more resigned than disturbed.
What seems paramount for Ms. Wilkes is that objects in an art gallery — whether soft sculptures or simple detritus — should register two ways at once: as exactly what they are, and as triggers for memories, fantasies, fears. That double charge is emphasized via an unpretentious mode of display: Paintings (sometimes nothing more than a few stains on untreated canvas) are hung far below eye level. Numerous fragile works, including all the sculptures of children, rest on the floor.
This approach has clearly posed a challenge to PS1, and to manage matters, the museum lets only 35 visitors at a time into the show’s principal suite of galleries, and only 10 into a smaller one. That’s no problem in itself, but the museum has not repaid visitors for the wait time by trusting them to view Ms. Wilkes’s art in peace. When I visited last weekend, the guards were nervously shunting visitors away from the floor-based works. Elsewhere, a guard is stationed next to a full-scale fabric mannequin, which is installed in a narrow hallway and thus can be seen only from a distance. Ms. Wilkes wants this presentation to feel unassuming, but at PS1, it can feel locked down.
I hope, over the course of this show’s four-month run, that visitors and guards alike will relax around these awkward, melancholy, important works of art, and will display the same courage that Ms. Wilkes has shown by installing them so vulnerably. What gives her sculptures such force is not merely the thematic evocations of loss and distance, but also the generosity with which she presents them. True mastery, she suggests, lies in letting anxieties go.