The floor beneath Penny Goring’s worktable is awash in filaments and fragments of scarlet cloth. Slivers and snippets carry across the carpet in crimson eddies, as though blood had spilled from her stabbing scissors and is seeping across the floor of her bedroom into the world beyond.
Encountering her art – haunting doll-like soft sculptures; paintings lifted from a brutal dreamworld – it is easy to confect an image of Goring as some otherworldly creature plucked from a fairytale. We meet on a wet day in late spring, not at a haunted forest but the very real-worldy locale of Surbiton station. Walking through the rain as buses splatter past, we talk about not being able to wear high heels anymore, and her time as an art student in London in the early 1990s.
“When I close that door and I’m on my own, the rest of the world disappears,” she tells me, sitting at her little worktable above the sanguine tide of thread and textile scraps. “Everything I have ever done has been centred on feelings. It’s easier to communicate emotions by inventing shapes that show how it feels.” Her work is variously funny-sad, sexy-sad, comforting-sad, politically furious and excellently freaky. There are her spirit-like Anxiety Objects, which strap on to and hamper the body, and the self-explanatory Extreme Naked Yoga drawings. A series of beautiful, storybook-like pictures of violently entangled women – the Amelia works – recall a mutually destructive relationship.
Goring’s soft sculptures are meticulously crafted and stitched by hand. “I like labour-intensive things that I do with care over long periods of time. Everything is sewn with this tiny little needle,” she tells me, pulling a sharp tool from the belly of a bear stuffed with pins. “This teddy bear is always by my side: it’s called Relapse Ted,” she says, replacing him. “I was in a treatment centre in 2005 because I’m in recovery as an alcoholic.”
It’s the week before sculptures and paintings, old and new, will be collected from Goring’s flat and delivered to London’s ICA for the installation of Penny World, a 30-year survey show. You could read that title as Penny v World, “because I am not comfortable in this world”, she says. But also as a play on Poundland: “Everything I make is using materials I can afford, and I’m on a very tight budget.”
She leans into this poverty of means, using food dyes, felt tip pens and fabric from old clothes. The weighty-looking golden Plague Doll, covered in breast-like boils, is made of stretchy fabric rather than cast in bronze: “I couldn’t afford that,” she says. “I only want to make things that I can do in my room, with no help from anyone else. I like to think that I’m slyly poking fun at the big boys and grand gestures, because she could be monumental but she’s gold Spandex.”
Her enveloping environment for the ICA includes lino flooring (“I grew up with fitted lino because mum and dad couldn’t afford a fitted carpet”), homely magnolia wall paint and captions in 1970s-style bubble writing.
Ahead of the show, Goring’s home is unusually stuffed. She has hung work on the walls for me to see. The scarlet Hell Doll hangs above her bed, arms severed to stumps, a black heart like a void where her face should be, and long curls like tentacles or flames in place of legs. Other sculptures lie on shelves, mummified in layers of cellophane against the moths and dust. In the hallway (but not the show) is a huge print of an image posted on Goring’s cult Tumblr feed in 2015. A model in a green fur coat sits with legs splayed, her head concealed by a crude cutout of Goring’s face. The lines “pragmatic vagina / romantic clitoris” hover on the surface.
Growing up a misfit “in a really rough area in southeast London”, Goring became an “expert truant”. Her saviour was David Bowie. She joined his fan club aged nine and saw him play Earl’s Court when she was 10: “He showed me that there was another world, apart from this harsh, scary place where I was getting beaten up and told that I was a freak.”
Arriving at Kingston art school in her late 20s, she discovered artists who explored awkward, overwhelming feelings. “Frida Kahlo: she was like my gateway drug,” says Goring. From there she found Eva Hesse. Then Louise Bourgeois: “She is so close to my heart. I feel such an affinity with her work.” A pile of neat student sketchbooks is stacked on the windowsill. Goring invites me to explore them. The germs of her current work are already evident. Even the title – Penny World – pops up.
Goring has not taken a conventional route (if there is such a thing) into the art world. She is not comfortable with face-to-face encounters. (Those swirly legs on the Hell Doll? That’s panic, melting the feet and ankles into useless jelly.) Despite the support of tutors including painter Peter Doig, she was not awarded a place on an MA course after art school. “I’ve always been really shy and had a lack of confidence, and was drinking quite heavily by the end of my final year,” she says. “I just resigned myself, quite happily in the end. I made my peace with carrying on making my work anyway.”
But purchasing a computer for her daughter’s schoolwork in 2009 introduced Goring to the participatory culture of web 2.0: a way to make her work public in private. What came out was not pictures but words. “As I was painting, I kept hearing huge swarms of words invading my head. I kept trying to ignore them and they wouldn’t go away.” For six months, “they were building up and getting louder and louder. Just torrents of stories. I sat down and started writing them.”
She posted fragments of text on Twitter which other writers identified as poetry. Goring was embraced by the online writing community, first joining the collective Year Zero Writers, then falling into the edgier, lower-case, wonky spelling, auto-fiction world of the “alt-lit” movement. Here Goring encountered “a whole new way of writing and communication”. Alt-lit “used Facebook as a poem. Everything was poetry.” She engaged with the visual realm again, combining text with found images, making videos and gifs. “It was only when the scene ended that we all realised we were part of a huge, sprawling universe called Weird Facebook: we were this little poem-y corner of it.”
Thus, it was through the written word that Goring re-entered the art world. A video over which she recites her 2013 poem Fear (“I fear I will not get what I fear I want. / I fear what I want. / I fear I will not get what I need, let alone want. / I fear lonely, drunken, drugged-up defeat. / I fear arthritis …”) was selected by curator Rózsa Farkas for a group show at the ICA. After seeing her paintings and sculpture, Farkas went on to champion Goring through her newly commercial gallery, Arcadia Missa.
To coincide with Penny World, Arcadia Missa is publishing two volumes of Goring’s writing: the poetry collection Fail Like Fire and a 2016 text, Headfuck the Reader. “She changed my life,” Goring says of Farkas. “I felt that I wasn’t posh enough to be a part of the art world. She helped me see that was something to let go of. Because you can carry baggage around for too long sometimes, if you don’t examine your thought processes and trace things back to where they’re coming from.”
I ask how it feels to live surrounded by her own work: each doll or painting apparently testament to an emotional evisceration. “It is hard to live with them, basically, is the simple answer,” she decides on reflection. “Big statement dolls, I’ll be glad when they’re not there.” Nevertheless it can hurt to let things go. She describes feeling “a pang” when Farkas sold a favourite drawing recently.
Goring has mixed feelings about participating in the brutal public arena of the commercial art world. There’s a series of drawings tellingly titled Art Hells. “I don’t think of an audience when I’m making,” she says. If she imagines “people to please, impress, or entertain, my mind goes blank, I feel really self-conscious and I can’t make anything worth making.”
Nevertheless, it is also a source of sincere delight: after decades of precarious living she can support herself and her daughter through art and poetry. “To think that all the weird stuff I’ve been making all my life can now be how I make my living, it’s very peculiar. It’s like a revelation.”