Kate Waters: The Poetry of the Commonplace
By David Galloway
Once upon a time, in centuries now past, the museum was a cherished place of contemplation, far from the hustle and bustle of the city: what William Butler Yeats termed "a still point in a turning world". In our own day, it is the museum that turns, whirls and even dervishes, with blockbuster exhibitions and beery “long nights” attracting a new, sensation-seeking public. However one estimates such developments, the fact remains that the museum as an institution has long been in a state of profound transition. Kate Waters explores this metamorphosis in her sumptuous painting "Getting Used to the Twenty-first Century" (2008). Her title makes reference to an age when information accumulates at a dizzying and sometimes dismaying pace, affecting every single aspect of life. The sheer speed of communication means that, like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, we have to run very fast just to stand still. Among the consequences of this acceleration are seismic changes in the way art is produced and consumed.
Ironically, the monumental work before which visitors are standing in Waters' composition is Jacques Louis David's "Coronation of Napoleon", painted at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century and itself the symbol of a period of drastic change. In David's carefully staged composition, onlookers stand in the foreground, as they do in Waters' painting. Two of the modern witnesses are attentive, while others have turned away, as though rejecting the past – or merely ignoring it. Undaunted by their sumptuous surroundings, they have entered the hallowed halls of the Louvre with a baby carriage. The times, indeed, are a-changing. The layering of narrative levels here is given a finishing touch by anyone who stands before the Waters composition. We, the contemporary viewers, are watching museum visitors viewing make-believe courtiers viewing a coronation ceremony that itself was a charade. (A century later, the wedding of Yves Klein would push such theatricality to extremes of absurdist pomp, as would the unintentionally comic investitures of numerous self-proclaimed monarchs.)
While reflecting on the shifting mandate of the museum, Waters' picture also offers a metaphor for change in a far broader sense. There are several earlier paintings in which the artist explores the museum (and painting itself) as metaphor. In most of them, tourists are pictured turning away from the masterpieces on view. In "Day Dream Boy" (2006), too, the central figure looks away from a "heavenly" subject to dream his own dream of paradise. The camera-toting museumgoers in "Hareem" (2007) are portrayed with their backs turned to a Delacroix painting, yet there is also a feeling that they are emerging from the canvas itself. As the artist herself phrases it, "Perhaps we are witnessing youth's pipe dreams, tumbling out of the painting into reality". Dream and illusion are, indeed, among her recurrent themes, which also include nostalgia, patriotism, friendship, the clash of cultures, family, communication and estrangement, the private and the public spheres.
Above all, this is an oeuvre concerned with perception: with how the individuals portrayed here perceive themselves and their surroundings and how viewers, from their own voyeuristic standpoint, perceive the same. It is hardly surprising that the museum and the street are recurrent settings for Waters, since they provide permanently shifting stages on which the comédie humaine is played out in all its infinite variety. Even those works set in the more intimate spaces of bars or restaurants – the richly ironic "Patriots and Guinea Pigs" (2007), for example, or the warmly intimate "Chop Suey" (2008) – treat the available pictorial space as a mini-stage. To deepen the theatrical metaphor, one might see the David painting in "Getting Used to the Twenty-first Century" as a kind of play within a play - a device famously used by Hamlet "to catch the conscience of the king". In the works of Kate Waters, too, one often has the feeling of catching players unawares, of their postures or glances revealing more than they realize. Rarely do the participants communicate directly, as they seem to do in "Chop Suey", even though the picture formally echoes Edward Hopper's painting of the same title, where two women seem cocooned by silence. In another Hopperesque work, "The Forbidden City" (2005), we see two couples on a night out, but they are plainly more interested in food than romance or conversation. Perhaps the most common player in these urban dramas is, quite simply, the "passerby".
What helps to dispel the sense of isolation and loneliness suggested by many of these works are their rich coloration and a luminescence that sometimes has the vividness of stained-glass windows. "Bond Street" (2008) is perhaps an exception, for the warm colors are associated with the romantic puffery of the wedding industry, while in the "real" world a solitary figure moves through cool, bluish shadow. Kate Waters has spoken of the scene in terms of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. (Other works, with their "innocent" picnics and parades, draw close to the aesthetic of David Lynch.) Indeed, many of the scenes depicted suggest a film still – a fragment of a narrative, a "harmless" moment that nonetheless seems redolent with foreboding. Despite the modern dress of its actors and the Technicolor glow of the scene, "Hell's Kitchen" (2004) bears unmistakable affinities to the chilling carnival episode in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train".
"Hell's Kitchen" is hardly the only work in which Waters treads a thin line between the playful and the sinister. "This painting", she notes, "is simultaneously about leisure, freedom, and enjoyment on the one hand, but also about fear, paranoia, gunshots flying around one's ears, running for cover". Implicitly, the war in Iraq is the lens through which many of the artist's recent compositions must be seen. Or the bloody riots in the banlieus of Paris that hover behind the bright and seemingly innocent "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (2008). In Roald Dahl's famous short-story collection Kiss Kiss, it is precisely this mixture of innocence and horror that proves so mesmerizing. One is tempted at times to think of these works not so much in terms of the painterly tradition of photo-realism and more as a kind of photo-surrealism. What Neo Rauch accomplishes through distorted proportions and historical incongruities is realized here through a subtle poetry of the commonplace.
Yet one should take care not to overemphasize the psychological innuendos and the political perspectives implicit in such works. Obviously the particular moment recorded in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was also chosen because of its painterly potential, including the strong contrast of light and dark, the haloed streetlamps and headlights, the strong, elaborated diagonal of the pedestrian crossing. In "Birds" (2006), it is also the pedestrian crosswalk that lends a diagonal tension to the composition as a whole. This, in turn, is further accentuated by the candy-apple red of the Harley that dominates the foreground, with man and machine suggesting a glittering cyborg – or a bloated insect. In the strictest sense of the word, there is nothing threatening or even uncommon here, yet a sense of menace is almost tangible. The artist has spoken of "Chinese ladies caught like deer in the headlights". Automobiles as predators also disturb the sweet pastoralism of "Fusion" (2008).
Throughout the work of Kate Waters, one can observe a careful interplay of form and content. Nor should we be misled by the impression that the compositions take life from the "throwaway" medium of the snapshot. First of all, it is the spontaneous as opposed to the posed scene that fascinates the artist. Furthermore, her subjects are usually in motion and unaware that they are being photographed. In this way, Waters wrests an authentic, typically unprepossessing yet redolent moment from the flow of time. Nonetheless, between the recording of the image and its transformation into a painting, there may well be a phase of manipulation. The process begins with the selection and cropping of a scene, but may also extend to the collaging of additional photographic "evidence" in order to strengthen the composition itself or underscore its thematic content. In the earlier study of naïve patriotism, "No Place like Home" (2002), two small boys in identical red t-shirts and American-flag shorts provide visual as well as thematic focus to the street scene. Only one of the boys existed in the original photo, while the other is an interpolation.
At periodic and increasingly brief intervals, art criticism takes note of the renaissance of figurative painting. In point of fact, it never went away. Even while he was creating his all-over action paintings, Jackson Pollock regularly returned to the figurative/symbolic mode of his earliest works. Nor has a flood of digital imagery seemed to stem the hunger for the painted representation of "the real thing". The ability to mimic while simultaneously transforming reality constitutes a kind of laying on of hands. With increasing virtuosity, Kate Waters takes part in this ritual act.