Red is the new black, they say. Red is the sky that burns with wasted light, stars washed out by urban emission. Clouds appear flushed in artificially illuminated skies. Chronobiologists grow nervous at dusk. Potential ecosystem and human health effects are not immediately apparent, they say. Bereft of dark-adapted vision, our eyes grow attuned to the radiative glare, awed at detectable differences in skyglow radiance.
Light effects abound in this new body of paintings made by Kate Gottgens during the months of lockdown. It started with a rainbow and a lone figure on a beach. His suited body casts a thin shadow on the stretch of umber beach sand, as fragile as a wish bone. He gazes outward toward the invisible sea and the promontory, run ragged with a forest of sapped trees. A single contemplative figure in the landscape, he is both an anti-hero and a trope recalling other single contemplative figures in the landscape. His solitariness calls to mind paintings by the 18th-century German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, who came of age during a period when growing disillusionment with an over-materialistic society led to a new appreciation for spiritualism. From the vantage point of the 21st-century Anthropocene, it is tempting to find Friedrich’s worst nightmare quaint. But that would be an error. A nightmare is a nightmare, no matter the century.
One focuses instead on the figure’s red socks – a quirk, an anomaly, a portal to pop insouciance. And on the rainbow, a symbol of promise, eternal renewal, utopia, better worlds to come… But even the rainbow seems vaguely deficient. As limp as day-old candyfloss, it hovers in the pink ether like a mystic aberration. Another inexplicable instance of multispectral luminance.
Its pale marshmallow hues are echoed in The Giver, in which a group of incandescent abstract shapes hovers above a pool of chemical turquoise, rendered all the more impossibly pristine by an engulfing field of impenetrable blackness.
Frozen and jettisoned memories serve as the raw material for Gottgens’ abstract narratives; in this instance a clutch of old postcards from Butlin’s, a chain of large seaside resorts founded in the late 1930s, in towns like Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness, to provide affordable holidays to British families. Printed in the 1950s or 60s, the postcards feature hotels and amusement parks, ‘little pools and exterior spaces illuminated by artificial lights – lovely lozenges of saccharine colour, everything washed in these strange, soft colours’.
Pearlescent, in soft limes and lilacs, is the curvaceous staircase down which the glamorous nude has descended. The architecture is unnervingly oral – red-carpeted stairs resembling teeth in an open mouth. She too is alone in her sexiness. Like the man on the beach, she is a trope, originated in 1912 by Marcel Duchamp, revisited in 1992 by Gerhard Richter. What is her narrative function? Is she there to signal the possibility of naked loneliness even in the most plush of circumstances? Or is she a nubile cipher, ever ready to stimulate and entertain the most furtive desires? It depends on who is watching. Whose eyes are reading her nakedness? It takes two to tango. The observer completes the painting, but to whom do Gottgens’ paintings speak? What do they call forth in us? The longer you look, the more you begin to sense that these characters are caught up in episodes of infinite metaphoric occurrence.
We have slipped into the multiverse – the territory of time collapse. The Dreamer is Lost weaves a quasi-Victorian spell. Yet the scene is also outside of time. Surrounded by ethereal bursts of alchemical energy, the two figures in the sinking canoe appear suspended in viscous cryogenic gel, eternally frozen in their moment of reckoning.
Other signifiers locate the voyeur in the milieu of the mid-century modern. Retrofuturist architecture and designer furniture function as temporal hooks – fleeting instances of material recognition. Take the shady figure gyrating the hula-hoop in The Empty Hours. Like other male protagonists in Gottgens’ oeuvre, he is wearing a white shirt and a black slim tie – an aspect of mod subculture, first made popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Uncannily specific. Like the trees. In The Old Man / L’uomo Vecchio, a suited figure in sunglasses reclines on a lounger in a crumbling amphitheatre dotted with trees. But they are not generic trees. They are tall, columnar Italian Cypresses, adding to the Felliniesque, Roman mood of the scene. In this way, Gottgens build up her story worlds.
There are several figures that come to us as types, tropes or ghosts from an unofficial archive, triggering a sneaking suspicion that we, too, might be versions of ourselves. The paintings in this anthology call to mind Westworld, the dystopian science fiction television series based on the 1973 film of the same name, written and directed by Michael Crichton. Set at the intersection of the near future and the reimagined past, the episodes explore a world in which every human desire can be indulged without consequence. The setting is a technologically advanced amusement park with a variety of environments populated by android ‘hosts’ – indistinguishable from humans. Operators programme the hosts to enact narratives, designed to fulfil the guests’ fantasies, but wipe away their memories of each traumatic cycle.
In A Promise, a radiant neon sign declares: ‘Our true intent is all for your delight’, suggesting that everything that transpires here is subject to some magical central planning. We are in a simulation. Myriad fountains transmit the idea that pleasure springs eternal.
The entire world and all its creature kingdoms are bent in service of human satisfaction. Manmade ponds and pools are populated with exotic creatures of paradise – a flock of flamingos, a lone swan, a diaphanous anemone unfurling in the starlight. The great bears of Alaska have been taxidermied, turned into simulacra of themselves – props for dancing bunny girls in an indoor entertainment hall. Nudge nudge, wink wink. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. An obedient chihuahua turns tricks in a deserted cocktail lounge.
There is no limit, it seems, to the possibilities for leisure, amusement and desire. Gottgens’ paintings beckon us to explore our existential limits, the darkest, most undeveloped parts of ourselves, the true mysteries within. In the same breath, they are cautionary fables, fraught with risk and danger. The series is shot through with an aura of precarity and impending doom. Memento mori. Strange flashes and crackles of mischief and malevolence. Planets orbiting in misaligned proximity. Flash fires in the forests of the night. Then, on the brink of apocalypse, the whole story dissolves into an abstract sheath of chromatic transparency. Narrative is supplanted by the physical materiality of paint itself. Stalagmitic drips on the surface of the canvas. A record of pigment. An archive of liquefaction.
Text by Alexandra Dodd