10.06.20 – 10.07.20
Artist Rooms is a new feature of SMAC Gallery’s exhibition programme. Created in response to art fairs and exhibitions being postponed globally as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Artist Rooms creates a space of experimentation and easier work flow to accommodate for these restrictions.
Surreal. Haunted. Erotic. Laconic. Her paintings are a daring exploration of the boundary between figuration and abstraction, and of the freedom in the process of painting itself. Risqué fictions spring up as characters, scenes and random events cohere into ghostly formal shapes. In the immediate pre-pandemic period, Kate Gottgens’ work reached an apogee of louche post-pop sublimity. The world as we thought we knew it was teetering on the brink of collapse and it looked like so much weird fun at the poolside. And then there was Wuhan.
Sex and death loom large in this new body of works made at the start of the global state of emergency and in the ongoing period of lockdown. She begins by taking the swimming pool trope into unfettered new territory with an aerial view of an emptied-out pool in an emptied-out city that resembles an abandoned amusement park or the innards of a pin ball machine. It is the stuff of 1950s B-grade horror. In another aerial view, we encounter empty water slides, cut loose from the hold of gravity. The Kreepy Krauly has gone rogue, overcome by machinic impulses. Wet and wild, a knotted assemblage of lubricated tubing unfurls across the dripping surface of the canvas in pointless loops of pleasure seeking.
And then come the collages. Archival photographs are the imaginative stock from which Gottgens builds the parallel worlds in her paintings. In this new suite of catastrophic collages, the found image itself assumes centre stage. The images are taken from ‘the Red Book – not Carl Jung’s great work,’ she jokes, but a scrapbook found at a flea market comprised of hundreds of images of artworks from ancient to Modern, cut and pasted from vintage magazines of the 50s and 60s. Fragmentation reaches new depths of primal recognition. Here is the snake. There is the maiden, the pirate, the sun – visual archetypes washing up on the shore of our collective consciousness like flotsam and jetsam.
The collage works comprise a series of skulls, interiors and abstract figurations. Like acts of contemplation in real time, or screen grabs from an incessant livestream of subconscious desires, fears, urges and memories, thesenew works evoke an apocalyptic imaginary realm. We’re inside now. Inside the crisis and inside our heads. But the interior is not a safe space to be. Miscellaneous forces of disruption rip through suburban lounges, molten larva or giant engulfing tsunami waves crashing in and smashing up the baroque couch. Not even the heavy drapes of high classicism can curtain the private realm from the great unleashing.
Collage lends itself to Gottgens’ interest in quoting and appropriating elements from art history. Fragments of doric column cascade through the image plane, disrupting a storeroom of ornately framed oils and classical marble sculptures, ironically titled Inheritance. From Hieronymous Bosch’s vestigial limbs and organs, to Salvador Dali’s melting timepieces, these works are rife with intertextuality. The figure of a woman emerges from slashes of Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa. Dressed in Amish blue, she tilts forward in reverence, her head a breaking wave amidst shards of scribbled tide and pointillist ripples. She is ocean.
Handwritten scraps of prose appear on torn strips of paper like existential Post-its from the beyond – ‘till the end’, ‘I forgive, ‘I remain’… Connections form and fall apart as the harried eye moves restlessly over shards of half-recognised material seeking out the inherited codes, but rarely settling. Hands groping flesh form the apex of a skull. A mountain occupies the space of forehead.The nose is metonym for scent – a simulacrum of sweet wild flora.In several of the skull works, the eyes and mouths have been supplanted by jagged cave-like absences which deliver the memento mori message – the injunction to meditate on death. Perhaps there is more to them though. These flat voids dominate the image field materialising the inner dialogue of the artist – of all artists across time – concerning the burden of sight and speech in the face of war, inequality, injustice, chaos.
Vanitas 4 (I Can’t Breathe)was made in response to the recent murder by asphyxiation of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin as two officers further restrained Floyd and a fourth prevented onlookers from intervening. Here, Gottgens channels Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808. The soldiers killing the unarmed men are turned away so that the viewer cannot connect to them. The victims have faces. The killers do not.Again the eyes of the skull are voids of darkness. The cave of the mouth is occupied by some genteel, fussing white hands doing very little in the face the 400-year assault on black lives. There will be no going back from this.
Even the humour in this series is dark – quick dirty jokes hinged on the tango of gender and power. In Nordic Noirthe grim reaper plays a game of bondage with a blonde in a pink bikini. A skeleton voyeur mildly surveys the scene from the cold comfort of an icy fjord. In How is Old Master, a Victorian gentleman sets off to the opera accompanied by his lady who is nothing more than her legs and arse, really – just the parts he desires.
Even so, the eroticism is real. And nowhere more incarnate than in The Rest.
In this painting a topless girl lounges against a smudged pink wall. Coyly pinned to the side of her featureless face, her long dark hair alludes to the dark untamed bush at the epicentre of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, which hangs on the wall above her head. The line of her neat parting echoes the slit between the naked legs of the painted woman, spread in easy abandon, revealing the origin of the world.
Text by Alexandra Dodd