Now that I look again at her invitation announcement, I see that I have done the artist a typographical injustice: there is no space between her names; her name is KateBrown.
Her exhibition, which consists of four massive "paintings" on black velvet , bears the cheeky and perplexing tide The Morphology of Venus' Tough Little Romp. The romp in question seems to be KateBrown's way of referencing the unlikely journey of the Venus de Milo from her unearthing on the Greek island ofMelos in the 1820s to the Louvre where, apparently, all evidence pertaining to her artist-perpetrator and her date of sculptural birth disappeared forever. And so KateBrown's task here has been to honour Venus's epic inexplicabili-ty and provide a few shards of homage.
These take the form of drawings un velvet, made with some sort of chemical extract that burns the velvet away and leaves a warm, golden line. The big "drawings," which are mostly sparse and quite elegant, depict things like hands grasping bull horns ullLeaper, and a dotted "portrait" of Venus herself, in three-quarter view. The finest of the four works here, though, is a huge black-velvet "tarpaulin" (that's what KateBrown calls them) which is unformed velvet void except for a rectangular slot in the lower right side. This slot accommodates a projected slide of classical drapery, now, as it falls upon the tarpaulin, made as golden as caramel, as burnished as old gold, and molten with antiquity.
Kate Brown's big black velvet pictures are so sensuously appealing, it's hard to keep your head around them. The exhibition is called 'Passed the Grid and on Till Morning", and the perhaps overcunning title actually manages to suggest something of the postlogical dreaminess the pictures engender – as well as the way they dust you with a sort of Peter Pan / Tinkerbell-ish disinclination to get tough with them. Essentially velvet tarpaulins fixed to the gallery walls with steel grommets, the works consist of huge "drawings" of fuzzy grids, bridles, breast-plate shapes (suits of armour? life preservers?) created with "an extraction agent" which, I guess, takes the velvet away. The shapes left behind are a wonderful warm burnished gold – as if Brown were drawing with honey or leaving behind her trails of crumbled sponge toffee. The whole enterprise is so ravishing, it's difficult (when you come to your senses) to decide what the heck it's all about. Maybe it's enough that Brown's golden drawings simply seem to hang in a deep, endless, unfathomable space.
The moon has nothing to be sad about, Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing. Her blacks crackle and drag. -Sylvia Plath 5 February 1963
I've always liked this poem. There is something about the imagery, the rhythm of the lines that I've found haunting and unforgettable. It makes me ache to read it, yet it is beautiful in a bare way. It provokes more questions than it answers and describes things in ways which seem impossible or incongruous. I wil lthink of it at odd times. It runs through my mind unbidden, and I find myself wondering again and again about what it means. Plath's words are decidedly spare and her imagery cuttingly sparse.
She intimates much, by telling us little. In fact, it is the absence of explanation that makes the power of this brief, restrained poem so unforgettably resonant. Does the moon look sad? What is the sort of thing she is used to? Who is "she" and what are her crackling and dragging blacks? My answers change all the time.
I found myself having the same kind of reaction when viewing Kate Brown's exhibition Passed the Grid and On Till Morning which took place in the fall of 2000 at the Lonsdale Gallery (Toronto, ON). Brown's work is executed with a visual brevity and exactness, It is about emptiness and space. She creates her work through usurpation of traditional processes and by laying against conventional meanings. Brown shows us what is there in her work by emphasizing what is not. She skillfully combines the beautiful and the exotic with the utilitarian and the mundane, to produce singular works of art that, like Plath's poetry, become enmeshed in one's unconscious.
The works on view consisted of five large black velvet paintings, measuring approximately 7 'x9'each, and six small (24" x18" each) crayon on paper drawings. The large paintings are done on what Brown calls "tarpaulins". Rather than a conventional tarpaulin however, which is usually defined as a canvas impregnated with tar, she uses rich, sumptuous black velvet - evocative of "high" art and luxury - but which are then finished with functional low-tech stitching and metal grommets. Brown then enlists the use of an extraction agent, which extracts or draws the pigment from the ground space thus creating a form of space within the b lack velvet field. In effect, she is reversing the traditional process of painting, stripping away what is present in order to show us what is there underneath, previously unrevealed. It is akin to a sculptor's method or carving away stone to divulge hidden subject but applied to two-dimensional surface. Brown uses the contrast between positive and negative imagery in order to create a space withn space, or to make "space" itself an object.
The images that are painted onto these black velvet tarpaulins deal conceptually and thematically with the visual isolation of imagination and the limitations of language as a means of description.
Bridle Pour Le Nuit is a metaphorical piece, dealing with Brown's attempts to find a language which adequate ly can "harness" the idea of space. A large bridle is depicted, emerging in colours of ochre and go ld from the dense, black velvet ground of the tarpaulin. It is an enigmatic image. And as Brown further defines it, not just as a bridle, but one for "Le Nuit".
From this we know that we are being encouraged to let our imaginations free-associate particular meanings. For "night" is a time of dreams and the unconscious, it is a time for us to let go of the contro lof our rational methods of knowing and understanding the world around us. The "bridle" can al low us a way of harnessing this night-know ledge and come to a new means of comprehending the world around us and how we experience it, once we are "conscious "again. Throughout her work, Brown exhorts us to look at things with a different perspective and challenges us to find different ways of seeing.
Bridle Pour La Nuit depicts what looks like a baroque device of some sort but which is in reality a collapsed chandelier mechanism. The chandelier parts are very clearly defined but the mechanism isn't attached to anything. The clearness of the imagery gives the work a surreal feel to it, The heightened reality of this depiction provides a sense of tension in the work. This painting references art patronage and the baroque art movement, but also comments on the limitations of our means of perception. The chandelier mechanism isn't functional. There are no lights therefore its usefulness is thwarted and its potential is unrealized. In this way the imagery of the painting reinforces Brown's recurring theme.
The small drawings which round out the exhibition deal with the same issues and ideas as the larger tarpaulin paintings but with a somewhat different technique. Here, Brown has taken a techn ique that most of us are familiar wi th from childhood: a colourful ground is drawn with crayon on paper, then covered with black. Then, using a fingernail or sharp edge an image is scrapped out of the black to reveal the colours underneath. With titles such as Space Catcher and Space Canopy we can easily see these works as a differen ttechnical manifestation of the exp loration of the themes of "extraction" and space.
The multiple readings of each work are intentional. The artist steadfastly refuses to give us simple answers or uncomplicated readings of her work, It is inte llectually vigourous yet sublimely beautiful at one and the same time. She provides us with visual clues which are meant to stimulate us into challenging our ways of understanding space and language. And as with Plath's poetic imagery, the absence of explanation in Brown's imagery makes her work unforgettably resonant.
What if a chandelier collapsed upon itself, yet remained improbably, impossibly suspended in space? What if we could harness a particular "space" - control it, tame it and make it ours? What if we could create an image that would save our life or section up the part of our mind that controls our imagination? What if something new could be created from spaces collapsing upon themselves? What if ..?
The infinite potential of ideas and associations are brought forth in Kate Brown's new body of work. Drawing on themes and images which have been the artist.s focus for the past decade. Brown presents the viewers with a kind of upside down, topsy-turvy world. Beautiful, lush, luxuriant black velvet at first glance draws the viewer to the work. One is overwhelmed by the vast expanse of these industrial black velvet tarpaulins that are bolted to the wall through steel grommets. We long to brush against them and be enveloped in their softness. Yet Brown makes us stop and reexamine the meaning. On these black surfaces Brown has painted with an extraction agent to reveal images: life preservers, chandeliers, and bridles. The resulting images are disclosed in tones of burnished gold and ochre, and bleed through the surface to the backside of the velvet. They are ambiguous, enigmatic, and in direct contrast to the velvet, common and unlovely objects. It is in this process of painting out areas that Brown lets the negative spaces communicate the subject of the work. These images appear eerily disembodied. They are larger then life which adds to their unsettling visual effects. The images mysteriously appear to break out of the confines of their two-dimensional realm, and with a siren.s call, beckon us to enter their undefined netherworld.
Accompanying these larger works are smaller drawings, executed with crayon on paper. Here, Brown has chosen to use a method - which while deceptively simple -fully reinforces the artist's theme. The drawings are, in effect, exercises in subversion of process. The work is revealed by the taking away, yet the remains of obfuscation are essential in defining for the viewer what the subject is-- the visual isolation of the imag ination. Imbued with a sense of drama, tension and subtle, fully developed sensibility. Kate Brown's Passed the Grid and On Till Morning opens up the possibilities for our visual imagination to make the leap into unknown spaces and ask ourselves, "What if ...?"
Kate Brown's Night Vision/Interconnecting Planes
launches V. MacDonnell Gallery Film, Video and Multimedia Series
"The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends on how everybody is doing everything...it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen."
Gertrude Stein Composition as Explanation
What Kate Brown has been looking at and thinking about for a very long time is space. She has examined it inside and out. Her work has consistently dealt with what exactly negative space can be. If it does exist, then it must look like something that isn't thought to be negative. How then can an artist depict that which is "negative"?
Kate Brown first used black velvet in a piece of work in 1988 while doing a residency at the Banff Centre. Beginning with the use of small pieces of material, the space of the black velvet evolved into large black velvet tarpaulins which she then painted with an extraction agent. The extraction agent turned the black to gold, signifying metaphorically that there were different kinds of space.
For Night Vision/Interconnecting Planes, Brown adds the element of time to her compositions, specifically the time-based space of a slide of an opened tin box. Earlier, she had completely unfolded a tin box into interconnecting planes. In doing so the artist recognized that she had discovered what could be another layer of space. The photographed and projected slide image onto the black velvet tarpaulin with the extracted abstract markings, continues the artist's examinations of different sorts of spaces and their interactions.
"During the summer of 415 BC, Athens was shaken by a scandal that roughly coincided with the launching of the boldest Greek effort since the Trojan War. A group of conspirators, moving throughout the city under cover of night, mutilated statues of the god Hermes. Found in every neighbourhood and in front of private dwellings as well as public places, these statues had the shape of plain rectangular columns except for two carved features: the head and erect genitals.
When Athens awakened, almost all of these phallic sculptures had been castrated. This highly symbolic crime is remarkable because of the authorities failure, despite extreme measures, to discover who committed it." Scholar Eva C. Keuls in The Reign of the Phallus, hypothesizes that it was the women of Athens who in the dead of night mutilated all of these statues or herms, as they were called. It has been 2500 years since the clandestine act against a patriarchal system and it would seem that instead of leaving the phalluses where they lay, women have attempted to symbolically don them by exchanging one set of patriarchal values for another.
It seemed so real, it seemed so plausible that the phallus as a symbol of patriarchy could bestow power upon anyone in its possession - like some magical talisman from an ancient obsolete myth. This trick of the eye and belief in its vision seems to have spun, recycled and spewed out images chat ricochet from one extreme to another leaving behind the trompe d'oeil of the still life and the still life of the odalisque for the anticipated action of the phallus. It seems there is no way out of this oscillation even for G. I. Jane.
In the Aphrodite Drawings, "Trompe L'oeil" shows a figure looking down at its phallus. This is the primary relationship. The gender of the figure is not clear; the value system is. Stark images from begging to bondage shatter expectations of shared power. In this series, blue is the colour and subjugation is the object. The Question:
where is the feminine and how can it be renewed?
Kate Brown's exhibition opening of The Aphrodite Drawings in Toronto will be filmed by Penny Wheelwright and Theresa Maclnnis for their documentary on women artists. They have just come from California where they interviewed Judy Chicago, and Montreal, where they interviewed Francoise Sullivan. After filming Kate Brown's exhibition opening of "The Aphrodite Drawings" in Toronto, they are continuing to New York where they interview the Guerilla Girls.