For 16 nights, for six hours each night, in October 2005, visitors to Matt’s Gallery in east London found Brian Catling stalking a stage set of dark ecclesiastical wood. The artist’s behaviour was erratic and volatile: he paced up and down at speed; he messed around with an animal’s jawbone; he would urinate from a constructed pulpit, or don a wooden dunce’s cap. Each night he grabbed a member of the audience, hooded them in a gold lamé sheet and forced them down a trapdoor, not to be seen again that night.
Catling, who has died aged 74, was a performance artist and fantasy novelist whose work mined a gothic imagination at odds with his otherwise genial manner. Antix at Matt’s Gallery was “thick with a sense of implicit violence”, one critic wrote, and Catling acknowledged: “I like perversity, I am attracted to the wrongness of actions, and the wrongness of doing things. I’m not making art for your comfort, I’m not an entertainer, I’m not making things to make you happy.”
At the ICA in London five years later, that audience discomfort was evident again when the artist premiered Mr Rapehead, in which Catling emerged from a black sheet and slowly set off the dozens of rape alarms strapped to his head. The artist Aaron Williamson described Catling’s persona as a “divine idiot”, and indeed it often felt as if the audience was witness to some sort of horrendous breakdown.
In Shuffle, a short film, Catling wears a pair of absurdly long, pointed shoes and fidgets and flaps up and down the frame of the static camera. He brings a Bible and a gun out at one point, then a puppet with a turnip for a head. In Migrant, another video work, we see Catling crawling across a snowy landscape, like the writer Robert Walser dead in the ice outside his asylum.
Catling published 16 volumes of poetry, including Cyclops (1997), a manifestation of his enduring interest in the mythologised one-eyed creature. This came from encountering a specimen at the Hunterian Museum in London. “It was a newly delivered baby in a glass tank. It had red hair and one eye with two pupils. It didn’t have that distancing that most specimens have. It had a brightness about it and suddenly I had an idea of it becoming a reality, of sitting and talking to a cyclops.”
There followed a series of egg tempera paintings of cyclops, which he would alway start with the eye itself – “one paint splosh” – working outwards; as well as a photographic project with David Tolley in which Catling posed wearing a series of terrifying latex masks, and various performances in which the artist delivered a monologue with a mirror held firmly to his face to bisect one of his eyes to equally monstrous effect.
The beast is central to The Vorrh (2012), the fantasy novel that ushered in a new chapter of Catling’s life. Telling the story of a mysterious “sentient” forest, in kaleidoscopic prose, Catling sprinkled his strange plot with characters both fantastical and historical. “I thought The Vorrh would be a book that someone finds on a shelf in 10 years’ time [and] brushes the dust off,” Catling told the Guardian. “Because they’re the only books I read.” Instead, championed by writers including Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, it was a success, spawning a trilogy – The Erstwhile appeared in 2017 and The Cloven in 2018 – and further works of fiction.
Born in London, Brian was adopted by Lillian and Leonard Catling, a housewife and caretaker respectively, when he was nine months old. The couple lived in south London and the bomb sites “still in the smoulder of the second world war” became his playground. Leonard built Brian a small platform from which to stage puppet shows for the other children in the street.
He attended Walworth secondary school, where he struggled with dyslexia. “I was in the gutter stream but they found me in the library reading Rabelais while everyone else was doing woodwork, preparing to be policemen or criminals … I was saved by my imagination.”
Seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Revenge of Frankenstein at the Camberwell Regal gave him his first taste of macabre, while his time as an altar boy fostered an interest not in religion per se, but how superstition can be symbolised within an object.
His foundation course at Maidstone College of Art, in Kent, ended abruptly in 1968, the fledgling artist deemed “an unruly and dangerous influence”, but his studies at Walthamstow School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where he met Sinclair, were more successful. He later taught at the RCA and at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming professor of fine art at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, in 1991, retiring in 2017.
Rarely producing objects for sale, he had an ambivalence to the market that started by accident. His first solo show was at a vast artist-run gallery in Copenhagen in 1986, for which he believed he had Arts Council funding. On arrival in Denmark, it transpired only his air fare was covered, leaving Catling to forage for art supplies, building the show in situ. “I had to change everything,” he recalled. Among the strange altar-like constructions Catling made for On Touching and Haunting a Noble Silent Room was a feather lit by a low-hanging light, rocks and reams of paper. It was a revelatory experience. “After I returned I took everything out of my studio and chucked it in the skip.”
The following year, Catling had his first of six solo shows at Matt’s Gallery, again making the work in the space. In 1994 he was invited to stage a mid-career retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, but told the curators all his previous work had been binned. Instead, he roamed the gallery and out into Hyde Park beyond, reading a text of his own composition. It was an unfashionable decision amid the glamour of the Young British Art movement.
“My contemporaries suddenly turned into car showroom people, suddenly they were punting their work,” he recalled.
Nor did Catling wait for big institutional invitations. He took to “reverse pickpocketing”, leaving small art objects he had made in the pockets of unsuspecting strangers. “I dug in more,” he said. “The performances became more esoteric”. In Water Halo (2006), Catling rode a circular S-bahn line in Berlin for three hours carrying a bowl of water, while his son Jack sat with a similar receptacle in the revolving restaurant on top of the Berlin TV tower on Alexanderplatz.
The same year, he was commissioned to produce a permanent memorial to those executed at the Tower of London, and in 2013 a processional cross for St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square. In 2008 he had a solo exhibition at Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, followed in 2010 by a show at Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool.
In 2016 he was elected a Royal Academician. Following the success of the Vorrh trilogy, he wrote Earwig (2019), adapted into a film by Lucile Hadžihalilović, and Hollow (2021), the release of which was marked by the broadcast of a documentary of his life in the BBC’s Arena strand.
Catling married four times, first to Susan Wood, the mother of Jack, then to Clare Northern, the mother of his daughter, Flossie, and son Finn, and third to Sarah Simblett. Those marriages ended in divorce. Following a long-term relationship with Rebecca Slingsby, who died in 2017, in June he married Caroline Ullman. She survives him, along with his children.
• Brian Catling, artist and novelist, born 23 October 1948; died 26 September 2022