This text was commissioned on the occasion of Catherine Repko’s 2023-2024 solo exhibition, a new season’s dawning, and produced in an accompanying artist’s book. The text is written by Eloise Hendy, writer, critic and poet.
Three hands touch, fingers interlaced in a soft knot. A woman lies on her side, surrounded by a wash of white like snow, or faded memory. A hand on the shoulder; the small of the back. A group of girls stand so close their arms merge – becoming one body, one many-headed creature. Another group of women stand on a threshold, at the edge of water perhaps, their backs turned. What are they looking at, these girls, these sisters?
In Catherine Repko’s work, a sister is a shadow, an echo, a myth, a dance, and a ripple in a pool. The third of four sisters, Repko grew up in a close-knit, all-female world. It was also a world that didn’t stay still. “We’re American,” Repko tells me on a blustery afternoon in her London studio, “but we lived in Germany, Italy, and Ireland in our childhood.” In each place, friendships had to be built from scratch, making the ties between sisters tighter. And yet, while Repko’s paintings certainly depict a kind of closeness that verges on immersion–girls “joined at the hip”, faces and limbs over-lapping like waves–at the same time, they seem to hum with distance. In one new painting, three girls face each other, one bending down as if about to speak some secret phrase, but another figure hovers mostly out of frame. Often Repko’s figures are sliced at the shoulder or neck, the canvas unable to contain them. They are already almost elsewhere; you see them but cannot catch them. The spaces between her figures too, often seem like figures themselves; like presences. Here then, the bonds of sisterhood might be unbreakable, but they also must stretch, shift and sprawl. Within their very closeness, they live alongside their separation.
This year, Repko got married. She was the last of her sisters to do so. And in her paintings, the recurring girls seem to hover at the far-edge of adolescence (that volatile time, when adulthood seems sublime: awe-inspiring and terrifying). Repko is interested in the very notion of transition–the point at which her sisters’ focus shifted, onto new nuclear families, and, more broadly, the moments when close-knit, childish ties alter and loosen. Marriage, after all, is traditionally conceived as the crossing of a threshold–from girlhood to womanhood. Traditionally, it is also thought of as both a time of radiant joy, and loss. The bride is ‘given away,’ like a trinket. And so, Repko’s paintings ask, what does it mean when sisters become wives become mothers, while remaining sisters still?
In 1995, Repko’s family moved to a town near Florence. Going to school in the city, the young sisters were surrounded by Renaissance frescoes–Virgin Mothers, saints and angels forming strange lineages, all dressed in the same draping folds. Decades later, in Repko’s studio, this“world almost-lost” to her returns. Drawing out figures from an archive of family photos, and animating her girls in new arrangements, in Repko’s early paintings she performed an uncanny conjuring of sorts. Each painting became akin to a faulty memory–a trace of something that almost-happened. Soon, Repko found a way to evoke memory and the passage of time in her works’ very texture. Unable to use her studio during lockdown, she made a series of oil pastel drawings. The creamy pastel had a tactility she had been reaching for–one that reminded her of the frescoes she’d once been surrounded by. Seeking to recreate this quality, she mixed paint with marble dust, which develops a “velvety, paste-like texture, a stone-like quality when dry”. That strange and distant realm of otherworldly figures caught in rock–the “world almost-lost”–re-emerged. The sisters were turned to saints and stones.