One leaves Kate Gottgens’ show Famine, currently on at smac gallery in Jo’burg, feeling a little shaken. The effect is like having peered into a hyper-reflective mirror that throws back our contemporary selves in luminous, troubling detail. The figures that populate the canvases appear to be fading away, disappearing from the picture frame at the same moment that they come into being, snapped on camera phones. A neon light permeates Kate’s otherwise muted palette, illuminating the figures and revealing the empty planes where features should be. These figures are spirits, moving through a late capitalist world with withering forms and no substance.
Suburban bliss is inverted in this body of work, but with an added dark twist in that the figures, so emaciated, are also oblivious of their state. In one image a woman lies passed out on a red velvet couch, her head wedged between the cushions of the seat. In another, two figures lie side by side on towels, sunglasses on, while around them the grey light of dawn breaks after a big night out. The work is entitled “Bloom”; the pinnacle of promise for Gen Y. We realise that the famine of these scenes cannot be satiated. The respite from 21st century capitalism that these figures long for is ironically the famine that they endure.
Kate’s suggestive brushstrokes and delicate colour palettes bring this nightmarish world to vivid life. Viewing the exhibition feels akin to scrolling through a social feed. These scenes are all too familiar, like a selfie of contemporary middleclass life. We spoke to Kate briefly about this new show.
How did the idea for your current body of work, Famine, come about?
It’s a response to my environment, observing my millennial children growing up in an affluent but changeable world filled to bursting with real and psychic hunger and emptiness
What images did you work from and how did you select these?
I work from my own and “found” photographs. The selection is instinctual. When I have a gut-response to an image it means it has potential. Also I have been painting for decades so I recognize what will work for me.
The diluted pigments seem to mirror the substance of the subject matter. Can you tell us more about the relationship between style and subject in your work?
The style is integral to the subject and varies accordingly. For example; some paintings are more rigid and compressed because the content or atmosphere is taught or oppressive. A loose, fluid application will obscure or conceal the subject matter for a more ambiguous atmosphere. In paintings with “diluted’ pigments I may be conveying a flaccid, listless quality or depicting a cliché ironically. Deeper, richer colours communicate something more intense, possibly violent.
Viewing the works in Famine there’s a dichotomy between voyeurism and participation. Is this something you deliberately aimed to evoke?
No it wasn’t intentional but I see it’s possible. I expect I am drawing on my own experiences though not consciously.
By contrast, in The Rising Sea and Infinite Loop series the sense of voyeurism shifts slightly to a feeling of trespassing in other peoples’ memories. Can you tell us a little about your interest in history and memory, and also perhaps photography, which serves as imperfect attempt to record these?
All found photographs have a history that one can only guess at and try to interpret. There is a certain amount of manipulating of the image to suit one’s own ends. In Infinite Loop I worked from an older archive, early 20th century images, I had found at a household auction. Of course, this period of history has a lot of interesting, problematic content: colonial, pre-feminist, pre-or post war, with different values and social norms from today. Physically old photographs are often damaged or degraded in some way that gives one a lot of poetic license.
What are your thoughts on the way that social media has invaded our lives, and does this filter into your work at all?
I am fascinated by the power of social media. “Digital Heroin” it was called in an article I read recently. It is unavoidable, addictive and staying at home in pajamas being drip-fed “likes” from Facebook can be temptingly dangerous. It filtered into the work of Famine where I think there is a sense of the banality of empty pleasures.
An artist statement to one of your shows describes you as a lover of paradoxes. Is this a necessary trait in the 21st century?
Accepting paradox is my defence against things I don’t understand, can’t prevent or control. I think in painting, if it is figurative or narrative, it means maintaining mystery and an open-ended quality.
The characters and scenes in Famine remind me of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and any of the interchangeable characters that populate Bret Easton Elis’s novels. Do you draw reference from literature in your work?
At the time of making these paintings I was reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was an inspiring parallel picture of young men entering adulthood. My characters are almost all millennials, Generation Y, but the references you make are very familiar and resonate with me as a Gen X teenager myself. Perhaps this comes through in the work. The last two paintings I made in this series came from a personal photographic archive from the 80s. But I think it is the concept of alienated youth on the brink of supposed freedom and adulthood, with its potential for collapse, that is common to both generations.
There’s a palpable feeling of foreboding in your work. What does this hint at?
It speaks of the unpredictability and fragility of life. Painting is a way for me to sublimate my fears and anxieties. And to seek empathy in the viewer as if to say “are you scared of this too?”.
Famine is on at smac gallery in Jo’burg until 6 October 2016.