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KATE GOTTGENS

THE SWIMMER

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KATE GOTTGENS

03.12.22 - 28.01.23

SOLO EXHIBITION

JOHANNESBURG

“The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer, the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a sadness at this sign of autumn.”

John Cheever, The Swimmer (1964)


Both Kate Gottgens and the late John Cheever, who wrote the short story, The Swimmer in 1964, have understood the significance of the swimming pool in the suburban middle-class. Even with, or perhaps because of, the vast distance separating them – in both time and space – they employ a shared discernment of the interactions which happen alongside the waters of the backyard swimming pool.


Cheever’s story follows Neddy Merril – a healthy, well-to-do family man nearing the end of his prime years – who draws a mental map of pools from his boozy lunch back home to his family and decides to swim home. His journey begins in high-spirits, but gradually, as he goes from pool to pool, his perception of reality starts to crumble and time begins to collapse. As seasons shift, Neddy’s self-assurance finds itself on a teetering balance. It is this unease, this tension, on the brink of trepidation, that Kate Gottgens perfectly encapsulates in her work. Followers of Gottgens’ work will be familiar with the visual of scantily dressed figures, features obscured, lounging around a pool of blue or deep green. This image, stirring in its familiarity, is rife with association and nostalgia. It defines early memories of pleasure and nonchalance, but at the same time it could be a space of discomfort – our first experiences with exposed bodies, conspicuous wealth and transgressive acts witnessed by innocent eyes.


Kate Gottgens renders her scenes with stark light and deep shadows. They are fictionalised landscapes, whether drawn from her memory, her imagination or from images found deep in drawers and notebooks. Unlike many of the reference imagery, however, Gottgens is conscious of her placement of the female figures, and purposefully ventures beyond customary depictions. In The Au Pair a woman sits on a lounger with her legs spread wide and open towards the viewer, while a young girl plays in the background. This visual brings to mind two common anecdotes centred around the male experience – of either the young boy or the father in love with the babysitter. In this piece, however, Gottgens chooses to omit the male entirely, positioning the au pair figure in a position of power, aware of her sexuality and the power that comes with it, but somewhat dismissive of it. A parallel can be drawn, somewhat by chance, to the motion picture The Swimmer, released in 1968, in which Neddy Merril – in a wildly inappropriate gesture – invites his daughters’ now-grown babysitter along on a portion of his trip. She tells him of her childish longing for him, feeding his ego and his vision of himself as an idealised man, but later leaves him to continue his journey alone after rejecting his advances. Unlike this scene, which is surely aware of the indecorum of Neddy’s behaviour, Gottgens chooses to leave out the man entirely, thus telling a new story.


Kate Gottgens’ discovery of the tale of the swimmer was a happy coincidence, no doubt brought on by her research and desire to continue painting pools. This body of work, however, stands proudly apart from the story from which it got its name. Gottgens paints what she wants to paint, in vivid colour and concentrated detail, as she always has.


As we are presented with snippets of late nights, shadows of people, and sketches of chairs, employing the power of suggestion, she asks us to wonder, and to cast ourselves as a lost swimmer in this narrative. And in so doing we are taken on a journey into our own suburban memories of midsummer balmy nights, Christmas beetles zooming haphazardly towards the nearest lantern, and petrichor rising from the soaked pavers of a flash summer storm that bathes the dust in new life.

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