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Reviews and Essays

Blue-Black Grids and Veiled Space and Blue Drip-lines and a Kind of Emergence: On Recent Paintings by KateBrown.

Ken Babstock 2014

Ken Babstock (CAN) is a poet and winner of the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize for Methodist Hatchet. His poems have been translated into several languages and have been anthologized in Canada, the United States and Ireland. Babstock’s previous poetry collections include Mean, Days into Flatspin and Airstream Land Yacht, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Ken Babstock is considered one of the most important poets of his generation.

The pale intrusions into blue
Are corrupting pallors . . . ay di mi,

Blue buds or pitchy blooms. Be content—
Expansions, diffusions—content to be

The unspotted imbecile revery,
The heraldic center of the world

Of blue, blue sleek with a hundred chins,
The amorist Adjective aflame . . .

            Wallace Stevens, ‘The Man With The Blue Guitar’

Not long ago I was at home with a small boy, picking up and dolefully putting back down coloured plastic objects, monologuing in a linguistic register stranded between strained exhuberance and feigned natural speech; just generally doing what grown ups do in hopes they might ‘draw out’ a toddler showing little interest in what we categorize as play. Some kids aren’t immediately familiar to us. They aren’t volcanic about any celebrated innate curiosity, or locked into an exchange of boisterously expressive facial maps and expressions that form the basic economy of learned empathy and respect. They don’t giggle. They don’t point and exclaim a whole lot. They very seldom smile, and aren’t interested, yet, in the back and forth of even rudimentary ‘talk.’  This particular boy remained sitting in one spot in the middle of the floor for long stretches, picking up and tearing pieces of white tissue paper arrayed on the floor in front of him. He appeared to be concentrating. He appeared to be unhappily studying what he was taken up with.  I could have gone into the kitchen and sat down to read. I had in the past done just that, leaving him to work out his patterns and his stasis to his own satisfaction.

On this day I’m thinking of I put on a Grizzly Bear record on a whim. I then dimmed the lights and drew the curtains so the room became nearly dark. I didn’t tell him what I was doing or even signal too much that what I was about to do might in any way afford him some pleasure. I guess I mean I didn’t expect, myself, that it would. I found a flashlight and fitted in the D-batteries. I plucked two long cardboard tubes from the recycling bin left over from the end of a roll of plastic drop sheets. I might have been acting out of a low-grade parental despair. I lay down face-up adjacent to him and began scooping up the torn white tissue fragments with one hand, clogging them down the pipe hole of the tube I held in the other.  I gave him the flashlight while I worked. I had vague feelings I might in fact have been attempting to out-play him somehow. He turned it over and touched its chipped lens and turned it over and didn’t taste it. He dropped it and picked it up again. He still looked worried, or bothered by a thing he wasn’t telling about. I packed, loosely, perhaps a quarter of the 4 ft tube and reached over into his lap and depressed the switch on the flashlight.  The beam hit the sideboard over on the north wall, wobbled sickly, slid down onto the floorboards and stretched out in a high dizzy crescent. He watched it and his eyes, I saw, had widened. The Grizzly Bear song was mournful but pretty and the words slid into each other or fuzzed their consonant-edges and became indeterminate, weedy vowel sounds in a delicate falsetto. Like a woodwind instrument in a shed with a lost dog and old comic books. The soft percussive rhythms I hadn’t noticed earlier were shuffling, unsuredly syncopated yet weirdly waltz-like, with snapping subdued snare drums like someone dropping a full bottle of codeine or cough medicine on the skin from a step ladder. He was moving his head now and had opened his mouth. His mouth was opened wider than I’d seen it open since he’d belted out those night cries and hunger signals as an infant. It was open now, his mouth, but silent like something delicious was about to be placed inside it. As though the room’s air, combined with this Brooklyn forest folk dance tune, comprised a flavor that coincided with ‘outside’ or sourceless ambient joy or easeful patterns of the new that remained resolutely non-threatening. I pointed his flashlight at the ceiling and motioned for him to lie back in the gloom. I had to help him lie back, he didn’t normally enjoy being stranded anywhere, supine, clawing at the space above him. But the disc of lamplight danced and swooped and skittered over the screen of the darkened ceiling and he began to direct its general dynamic and whipped arc over the shadowed plain and transecting the angles where wall met ceiling and back again striping the bulbous hanging lamp, and then I lie next to him and inhaled and blew into the tube an explosive punch of everything in my lungs and the tissue exploded out the are opening in a whispery font of white silent force that met the ceiling’s limit and flowered out like a splay of petals in a rolling current and rained down in tumbling blots and flakes and scrunches of flashing white where they intersected with the strobing spot streaming from his hands. He made some very loud halting, breathy noises that weren’t eloquent but were and they did sync with the Grizzly Bear song and felt right and an improvement and the soft fragments he’d made came down as snow or blowsy leafage or just an aspect of the sensory plenum and covered parts of his face and tickled his throat and when they’d all hit the floor so the screen where his light’s beam scrambled around alone now was dark and flattened again he couldn’t accept that. That was something that couldn’t be allowed to be the case and so he reverted to a younger age, an earlier more simplified mini-stage of cognition and interaction and hauled out a robust and over-excited version of the sign for ‘more.’  It’s like making all five of your fingertips touch each other, on both hands, then bringing these two congregations together to meet discretely, over and over, as urgently as you need, to kiss and touch at the tips like tribes from two hemispheres who’ve met in a clearing and exchange gifts and greetings across linguistic chasm and cultural difference and depart or retreat again to discuss the next meeting with fervor and love and a bursting anticipation. So we repeated the process. We did it I don’t know how many times, until the batteries on everything gave out and the song took on a repulsive silliness and there were damp weakenings in the tissue and my spine felt bruised from the floor and it couldn’t possibly be as good again one more last time anyway could it.

We were packed in. The dictator’s bust was there too,
wrapped in newspaper. A bottle passed from mouth to mouth.
Death, the birthmark, was growing on all of us, quicker on some, slower on others.
Up in the mountains the blue sea caught up with the sky.
--Tomas Transtromer, ‘The Black Mountains’

But this is now memory already, taken up residence in some unknowable assemblage of neuronal firings and nodes of non-matter, or matter-as-energy ready to reassemble into slightly altered episodic memory when triggered. The blues and blacks of time receding. The lying in wait of interrelation and inter alia. The weak metaphors of the organizational grid below the operational surface.

It is always so early inside here, before the fork in the road, before the irrevocable decision. Thanks for this life! Still, I miss alternatives. All sketches want to become real.
                    --Tomas Transtromer, ‘The Blue House’

As I write now, a load of powdery, dry, snow has been falling out of a grey-white edgeless mass for 15 hours. Looking out into it I see panels of directional pattern in the falling that cut across one another the farther I see into the distance. Depth also seems to insist on variations in velocity. Some bloated creamy flake-nodes seem stunned and lazy, while others have a veering speed and angle and they move in phalanxes and sectioned veils. The chain link at the base of the CN cut bank is a horizon, and the incline itself, cross-hatched with cleared, denuded brush and standing dogwood or poplar, and the bold rail line another black incision collecting the powder and appearing wetter and more solid because of it. Despite what’s been ‘known’ about optics for sufficiently fat chunks of history, intuition still, now, deep into the echoey cargo bay of ‘modernity,’ insists my vision beams out to meet this nexus and weave and depth and contour. It continues to feel like an insertion or as though it travels outward and deep into the thick grid of the visual field. Why does subjectivity cling so tenaciously to debunked constructs? It’s a ridiculous question, or a meaningless one, as it’s analogous to asking why subjectivity insists on itself, its own continuance. We could query a rail spike along the same lines. And some have, I suppose, so perhaps a soft mystic current also tugs at these blues.

In the scene you’ve missed, or are
about to witness, desire
and departure rendezvous. No hero happens,
unless it is you, the creature at the cusp of change,
the avid unabashed voyeur.
                    --Don McKay, ‘The Book of Moonlight’

KateBrown’s recent paintings contain and deflect and suggest all these notes of elegy, perceptual inquiry, accuracy of the sensorium, the background hum of empirical ‘knowledge’, critical reflexiveness, lightly handled quotation, a formal wonder, and the childlike learning-by-immersion I’ve tried to gesture toward or outline here in language (the rickety, tilted, and dissolving old porch swing.)

I’ve already written “grid,” which has a lineage in 20th century painting (criticism), but is also now a term loaded down with other associations, digital communications, power source and infrastructure, urban planning, mapping and cartography of all sort. And what of the dominant colours in Brown’s work? A sort of non-confrontational conversation of distant poles. A brightness and vivid electrical distance in the blue, alongside or paired with the truculent, fearsome, immovable mysterium tremendum of black, and then both put in a spatial dance or erotics with a calm, humane, dirtied white. A soiled and work-saturated cream that takes shape at times in concert with the blue and black drips and lines; at others pulls a screen across or intrudes on the patterned organizational schema. The off-white often shows its labour in unevenness and washed-out edges, a thinness or lack of any imposing will. It has the arbitrary play of weather, the innocent blankness of failing to recall or self-locate. The tones give rise to a space that possesses a character.  An outsized enclosure at the wrong hour of night depopulated yet friendly toward the contemplative urge. Fear and whimsy and vertigo and melody all have uneasy quarters here.  And it’s this tenuous, accidental equilibrium that seems to allow, even welcome, tentatively, my presence; or creates presence itself inside my contemplation of, or just becalmed viewing of, the work.

66. Yesterday I picked up a speck of blue I’d been eyeing
for weeks on the ground outside my house, and found it
to be a poison strip for termites. Noli me tangere, it said,
as some blues do. I left it on the ground.


89. As if we could scrape the colour off the iris and still see.
                    --Maggie Nelson, from ‘Bluets’

Summer. The Canadian prairie. More specifically, The Qu’appelle Valley, not a great distance northwest from Regina, just below the plateau of rapeseed, canola, wheat. Only ten days and already three skull-compressing, histrionic, green-tinged, malevolent meteorological upheavals have passed up the river valley, knocking out phone towers and disarranging barn roofs. Twisters and tornadoes and tipped grain trucks. The excitable people of Saskatchewan refer to these end-days, most ominously, as “weather.” Then they hold your gaze a beat longer, to see if you’ll flinch, then turn away and inspect the horizon, or the moisture in the dirt, or the blast shadows where silos once stood at the intersect of quarters and sections---I’m not really sure. But the weather had passed, and evening had passed, trumpeting its Kabuki of sunset in garish bathrobes and bonfires and caribbean fruit, and now it was full dark. But full dark on the prairie, under a clear sky with most of a white moon, is the equivalent of mostly light in some other places. You could read Beaudelaire by starlight. I realized it had been some years—years—since I’d stood under a night sky so super-abundant, glistening and crystalline. It seemed to be shouting at us from all points on the compass. Nothing appears so wrongly nearby as the night canopy’s galaxies unfurled and plugged in and pressing down. One amongst us happened to be a hobbyist of the stars, the cosmos, the mind-numbingly vast theatre of light up there, and he did me the favour of quickly coaching me to see (without first telling me what I was about to see) the blurred, dusty fingerprint of super-distant star clusters that make up the Andromeda Galaxy. He showed me how to see it by not actually looking directly at it. Once he’d informed me of what I’d just viewed (askance), I felt something like minor violation. I’d been somehow astronomically sandbagged. As though the only proper way to approach cosmic magnitude was through prayer and supplication. But that’s mere psycho-cultural residue from how and where I was raised. I’m glad I was able to shake it off and just stare and drink beer and not muddy the dark with a reflexive and apologetic and contrived mysticism. Though I still felt abandoned in a strange place: wet grass, western beer, weird mental frames, and no formally proper way to acknowledge an experience. There’s something impoverished, or belittled, certainly de-sacralized, in the scenario to think back on it.

KateBrown’s pictures return something to me. Actually, they return to me a hoarding of faceted and barely connected riches from a partially shared history: dim (and possibly cheeky) references to US AbEx in the drops and liquid randomness, more quiet evocations of all sorts of ‘soft grid’ work of postmodern artists, as well as calling up decorative, textile, patterned art often associated with the historical labour and leisure of women. All this and much else I’m not consciously reading, but also her work seems to gift me—my person— with a spatial expansiveness—possibly solitary, even lonely, and not fixed or rigid, but uneasily quivering and threatening tectonic shifts—in which my seeing can be a pleasure and a thinking both. A bodily, somatic groping-around, as well as this polysemous chattering around subject and exterior and interior and the view from nowhere which resembles, or can be made to resemble, with commitment and rigour and real seeing—actual dreaming—the view from right here.

“On a wall shadowed by lights from the distance  
is the screen. Icons come to it dressed in capes  
and their eyes reflect the journeys their nomadic  
eyes reach from level earth. Narratives are in  
the room where the screen waits suspended like  
the frame of a girder the worker will place upon  
an axis and thus make a frame which he fills with  
a plot or a quarter inch of poetry to encourage  
nature into his building and the tree leaning
against it, the tree casting language upon the screen.”
                        Barbara Guest, ‘The Screen of Distance’

I don’t know what years, or how many, these paintings span, but they carry an ambivalence, a pained weightedness, everywhere in their shadows and soaked, colder tones that speaks of perseverance and meditation. Yet also a gauzy, ad hoc, blinking instantaneity, like a sharp dinner table quip, or a puzzle laid out in simple geometries it turns out only grade schoolers solve within set time limits. There are yellows in the whites, then whites that strike the eye as arctic and pushy. First the committed black drips walk downstage center and monologue in grumbling tenors; then they’ve been upstaged by the custom of curtains and a realist’s insane, electrified beryl or azure or wedgewood or Facebook blue. We’ve come from over there, and are passing in an easterly drift. No, wait, the inverse. It seems we could stay engaged here forever; one picture leading to the altered movement and tonal upgrades of the next, then the next, then invited to laugh a moment, and biology appears, jittery, swimming and many-celled. I think of KateBrown’s work as a very loud quiet; a multidirectional stasis; a vast, deep, sweeping specificity. An uncalm calm.

Space Invader: thoughts on KateBrown's new paintings

Jonathan Bennett 
  |  Novelist & Poet  |  
Keene, Ontario  |  January 2014

Jonathan Bennett is the author of five books including the critically acclaimed novels, Entitlement and After Battersea Park, two collections of poetry, Civil and Civic, and Here is my Street, this tree I planted, and a collection of short stories, Verandah People, which was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists' Award in Literature.
Jonathan Bennett's other writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals including: the Globe and Mail, The Walrus and The Best of Walrus Poetry, Quill and Quire, Southerly, Cordite, Antipodes, Matrix, This Magazine, and Descant. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives in the village of Keene, near Peterborough, Ontario.
His new novel, The Colonial Hotel, will be published in Spring, 2014, by ECW Press.

There is something about circling a sculpture I've always found disquieting. Sculpture, unlike a painting,  a film, a poem, or a piece of music, requires you to physically go around it, to properly take it in. Of course, while all art forms seek interaction or engagement, the gravitational pull of sculpture, how as its viewer you are its temporary moon, is unique to it. At least I thought so.
Something similar, though not exactly the same, happens when you take in Kate Brown's new works. It's as if you enter right into her paintings, all the way, only to look back at the place you were only moments ago, circling and weaving until you properly understand the structures at play. It's this relationship between spaces, between the you and the interiority of the work, that reminds me more of taking in a sculpture, than a painting.

Of course, Kate Brown has spent her career interrogating spaces. She's done it in ways small and particular, and large and philosophical. While her newest series of works find her back using paint on canvas, she seems to be still addressing space just the same. What's different, new, again exciting here, is we find a whole new tone and vantage point.
Tone, because, I don't know if it’s the biro blues, the partial white-over erasures, or the gridlines and periods and repetitions of comet-like trails and after glows, but I never felt far from conception, from the first thinking of it. As if, instead of paint, a pen and blotter with a bottle of liquid paper, were the real tools here. There is a freedom in these works that, correspondingly, create inviting, non-literal yet familiar-feeling spaces.

Vantage point, because, yes, while these must be said to be abstract, surely only by customary definition. The spaces require investigating, and fire up your memory and imagination, slugs in the rain, geotechnical maps and population density infographics, storms rolling in, car windows covered ice, scaffolding made of bamboo during monsoon season. They pull you inside, the way water does, or sky. They speak and listen to you as you scope them out, climbing within, the meanings you achieve for each, surprisingly private ones.

In the end, you wonder if Brown knows you too well. Did she anticipate your desire to enter, to encircle the spaces, to wander, to have a "now" experience? Did she set up our fractal-aware minds, a generation of 3D viewers ready to participate physically inside space that, until recently, was an unimaginable transgression? Or is space as old as marble? Have we always had the urge to roam and go see for ourselves?

Mary Rashleigh


Mary Rashleigh is the former curator of The Grimsby Public Art Gallery. Now in her capacity  as an independent curator she has produced projects such as The G8 Summit Exhibition and The Canadian Spirit Exhibition.

When I look at KateBrown’s luminous paintings, I can’t help hearing their music.  They take me from the dark, dramatic music of Brahms’ symphonies to the lyrical and lively music of Vivaldi to the funky bebop of Thelonius Monk.  These are paintings I can listen to.

Although the artist’s technique involves layer upon layer of paint in a two dimensional method, these are not two dimensional works.  The feeling of space and depth is extraordinary.  She is not using conventional tricks of perspective to achieve this effect, but her use of space draws us into her paintings and into her space.

The images are varied, yet tied together by the artist’s use of a limited palette - black, blue and white.  According to Brown, the black represents the future, the white represents light and the blue - the sky -  in other words, space.

Some of the images make me think of the immense starry skies we see here in Muskoka and in some we are looking down from a great distance.  In others, we are entirely in the space created by the artist.
We enter willingly into this space journey with KateBrown