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Sex, death and sculpture: Cathie Pilkington’s Top Shelf

Published 20 May 2016

The Royal Academician talks about the “Baccahanalian excess” of her sculptural installation Top Shelf, currently on display above the bar in the Academicians’ Room at the RA.

  • “I wanted to mix up Beatrix Potter with Rodin and German erotica, and see what happened,” Cathie Pilkington RA says of her sculptural installation Top Shelf, created for the space above the bar in the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy. It’s a work made up of individual sculptural components, which she describes as “like a 3D collage – it’s about stuff and storage and display, and how these can become decorative and formal elements.”

    The result is a tableau of “Bacchanalian excess and bawdy humour”, where pieces reminiscent of Rococo porcelain stand alongside scenes of fornicating characters in masks, defecating dogs, and figures that might have stepped out of a particularly dark fairy tale.

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    Cathie Pilkington's Top Shelf

    As she installs a new work in the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy, Cathie Pilkington RA talks about why sculpture is the idiot cousin of painting, the “libidinous urge” to create it, and why it’s a medium that is uniquely placed to help us make sense of life’s big questions.

  • In its overall execution, the work was inspired by the mix of sacred and profane subject matter that can be found in elements of church architecture such as misericords – the ledges underneath seats in choir stalls – and the colourful and elaborate compositions of altar screens. “I’m interested in the idea of this huge spectacle that then breaks down into individual scenes, where you can look and look and keep discovering more,” she says.

    In the video above, we visit Cathie Pilkington’s London studio and follow the process of installing this complex work in the Academician’s Room.

    Elements of Top Shelf are available to buy on the RA’s Art Sales platform, along with limited-edition prints.
    The Academicians’ Room is a private members club for artists and art lovers. Find out more here.