LONDON — Though her work is driven by abstract feelings — fear, fury, love, and anxiety — artist Penny Goring is continually finding new ways to bring them kicking and screaming into the physical world. For her first solo show at a public institution, Penny World at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), the artist creates an emotional landscape that veers abruptly from tender to violent. 

A sense of darkness lingers in a lot of Goring’s work, which straddles the line between personal and political: the materials that she uses, including ballpoint pens and free software (e.g., Microsoft Paint), are explicitly influenced by harsh economic realities. This reflects the uncertainty and anxiety that permeate her art: Me and mine (2017) is a series of what she calls “anxiety objects” — small plush faces with cartoonish features, like “CRY BABY,” who cries pink tears from black voids. These faces are recurring motifs in her work, as in “Blue Tree Grey” (2016) and “Pyre” (2016). With them, Goring creates a world of complex, often contradictory, emotions. In her art, she literally turns the self inside out to express feelings of fear or uncertainty as a deeply visceral extension of the body. “Amelia Dead Inside Me”(2017), for instance, shows a mauled body covered with hearts, bringing together love and violence, hope and despair. 

Penny Goring, “I was a Visionary for Boudica” (2015), digital collage (courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa, London)

Just as these emotions transform the physical bodies that Goring puts on the canvas, they also have the power to create an alternative world — as if the feelings she puts out into the world have the power to change it. “Anti Raptors” (2014), a topless figure faced away from the viewer, covered by the text “I DREAM OF ANTI CAPITALIST RAPTORS,” acknowledges the violence and imperfection of the world, while still wishing to change it.

This idea of imperfection is integral to Goring’s representations of the body, whether through sculptures that announce these imperfections, such as “Wrong Doll” (2022) (an inflatable doll with WRONG FACE, WRONG HEART, WRONG FEELING, WRONG LEG written across its body and face) or drawings like the mutilated body of “Amelia.” These bodies, often flawed and unsettling, become repositories for feelings that are hard to contain physically. In the Extreme Naked Yoga Series, Goring takes the idea of yoga as a means to achieve tranquility and violently subverts it by evoking emotions that normally lie beneath the surface — suppressed by a meditative mantra — through tropes of body horror. “Extreme Naked Yoga 3” (2017), which portrays a nude figure with eyes open and mouth locked in a grimace, renders violent feelings corporeal as something strange and shapeless emerges between the figure’s legs. 

The interplay between bodies and emotions in Goring’s work, and their potential to be transformative, reveals the politics that pump like blood through the artist’s ever-exposed heart. These bodies are made to suffer through the conditions they endure: a figure, nude but for shoes reddened by food coloring, hands in fire, burning below the text “my body is trashed and I live in poverty because I never stopped looking for true love,” captures both the horror of the world and the desperate hope to transcend or escape from it. The question is how long until these things collide, and what will happen when they do; for Goring, the center cannot hold, nor should it. 

Installation view of Penny World at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (photo © Anne Tetzlaff)
Penny Goring, “TRULY (ART HELL)” (2019) (courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa, London)
Penny Goring, “Inflatable Dress of Despair (Heart)” (1992) (courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa, London)

Penny World continues at the ICA (12 Carlton House Terrace, London, England) through September 18. The exhibition was curated by Rosalie Doubal.

Sam is a writer, artist, and editor. Their work has been published by the LA Review of Books, the BFI, i-D, and other places. They are one of the founding editors of Powder...