Caroline McCarthy, Essay by Sally O’Reilly, solo catalogue published by Gasworks, London, 2003

Many contemporary artists use everyday objects in their work, either as imagery or the medium itself. Often this is due to economic constraints, but it also reflects a general shrinking adulation of the grandiose; heroic canvases and monumental sculptures have given way to household goods, familiar nick nacks and cast-off ephemera. Caroline McCarthy uses these cultural excesses both as imagery and medium. Her Testors series is a two-fold indication of capitalist over-productivity, highlighting the range of products available to perform a straightforward function. McCarthy has collected plastic containers from supermarkets, divested them of their brand livery, and transformed them into a range of fake electrical goods. Our brand-specific expectations of bleach or engine oil containers are scotched by the application of military model-makers’ paint, a range of camouflage neutrals that disguise the original product. This transformation from expectation to reality oscillates back and forth, as our perception of the objects flips between cartons and camcorders. Yet this apparent display of practical or desirable goods essentially consists of blank, hollow forms – an abstraction of Tottenham Court Road allure or supermarket drudgery – representing a fundamental schism between surface and content, desire and fulfilment, sign and substance.

This theme appears throughout McCarthy’s work, although this is not to suggest that she is simply cynical. There is more of a sense of fascination and humane responsibility for the sheer range of stuff in the world. Man's overproduction has created some bitter-sweet moments of over-specificity. It is disturbing to think, for instance, of factories full of workers attaching springs to plastic woodpeckers destined for the ends of pencils. The socio-economic connotation of this sort of labour is devastating yet surreal.

McCarthy’s work interrogates what might or might not constitute necessity. In her photographs of still-lifes of fruit and vegetables made from dampened toilet paper it is the art historical references that are foregrounded in the gallery context. Then the perversity of foodstuffs modelled from a material usually employed at the other end of the alimentary canal slowly dawns on you. And then you realise that the product used in one of life’s less aesthetic moments is manufactured in a ridiculously wide range of colours. McCarthy packages this strange excess of consumerism neatly into the classical guise of the still-life, which crumbles into bathos under scrutiny.

In her installation Escape, McCarthy brings to our attention the pervasiveness of the leopard skin print. A domestic interior teeming with variations of the same pattern is held within a skeletal, room-like structure, as though to keep us at a safe viewing distance from the virulent design. Clothing, furniture, accessories and the pointlessly baroque things that find their way into the dark corners of our homes have been arranged to create an environment that is at once feasible and uninhabitable. We can imagine the type of person that might inhabit the room, but we would not wish to know them. It seems a terrible place, but one that never fails to draw in the eye; the role of the viewer is that of identifier, as we cannot help but pick out the items that amuse or repel us.

The optical din that the installation gives off partially obliterates the unease created by undertones of colonialism, the appropriation of the exotic and the sinister subduing of the wild. Whereas Testors and the still-lifes employ a reductiveness, Escape is pure exaggeration. The repetition of similarities though, rather than enforcing a universality, exaggerates digressions within the idealised representations of ‘leopard skin’. Imperiously, we approximate the complexities of nature so that it becomes at once familiar and fictional. The printed surfaces in no way alter the functionality of the objects they cover, as novelty requires that form supports surface and functionality remains secondary. This inauthenticity is the epitome of kitsch but, again, McCarthy is not holding it up for ridicule, but wonderment at the minuscule extents to which we might go to make life better.