“I am drawn to the idea that there are things you can tell about another person just by looking at them and, conversely, that there are things you can’t tell,” says Kate Arthur about her recent solo exhibition at Chandler House.
This new body of work, titled Things You Can Tell, comprises a collection of what she calls “body portraits”; detailed and delicate watercolour studies of bodies that resist normative narratives around gender and sexuality. Accompanying these lifelike works is a series of monotypes, which marks a completely new stylistic departure for Kate. Until this body of work, the artist worked almost exclusively in oils. These monotypes form the nexus for this body of work, reinterpreting the corporeal bodies in the watercolours in shifting, fluid, overlapping and undefined forms.
We spoke with Kate to find out more about this new body of work.
How and when did your most recent body of work, Things you can tell, begin?
The production of this particular body of work coincided with an internship I began at Warren Editions in May this year. I saw it as an opportunity to push and extend the kinds of oil-on-canvas portraits I had been doing. Oil painting – or certainly the way I paint in oils – can be very serious, and I was hoping to explore the same subject matter in more playful and experimental ways. The title of the show is taken from the film ‘Things you can tell just by looking at her’. There’s something very beautiful and sensitive about that line, and I am intrigued by the idea that there are things you can tell about another person just by looking at them. Making these works required a continual act of looking and re-looking, and the show itself is an invitation to viewers to do the same.
You call this series of works ‘body portraits’. Please tell us a little about what you mean.
The intention of traditional portraiture is to portray not only a physical likeness of the sitter, but also some aspect of who they are – to capture an essence of their identity. Conventionally it is the face that is the focus and priority of this endeavour, but there is indeed a lot that can be revealed about a person through depicting their body – their shape and size, their skin, tan lines, freckles, body hair, scars, piercings, tattoos… A body carries many stories.
This series includes monotype prints as well as paintings. What was the process and experience like for you working in this new medium?
It was actually really difficult and I struggled to find my way through it. Because the application of the monotype medium is technically similar to that of painting, I assumed it would come more easily to me, but it didn’t. I fought with the process and hated most of what I made, especially at the beginning. People have commented that I produced a lot of work for this show, but in fact what was exhibited was probably only a sixth of what I actually produced in studio. There was so much bad art. It was only when I let go and stopped trying so hard to control the outcome that good things started to happen. It was a very valuable lesson.
While the watercolours in Things you can tell are very lifelike, the monotypes appear of dissolve the subjects and become far more impressionistic. What’s the relationship between these works?
The watercolours are straightforward body portraits of specific individuals, while the monotypes rework those same bodies in combinative and more fluid ways, superimposing different torsos and allowing the contours to spill out over and across and between one another. This layering and merging of figures opens up the possibility for multiple bodies to exist together, revealing how they are different and how they are the same, and blurring the lines between where one ends and another begins. It is an attempt to dissolve dichotomous understandings of “masculine” and “feminine” bodies and to create ambiguities around what we think we know about the people to whom they belong. The lifelike watercolours serve as a reference point, but also bridge the gap between the older and newer styles of my work.
Please tell us about your decision to use pink and blue in the monotypes in this series.
Because this work deals with notions of sex and gender, I have deliberately taken the two most gendered colours and used them in ways that might subvert how they pertain to bodies. The binarising of sex and of gender begins at birth, often even earlier, announced and maintained with the ascriptions of pink for girls and blue for boys. It’s 2016 and people still think like this, still cling to this. Positing “male” and “female” as antonymous is both absurd and detrimental, but it is unfortunately deeply ingrained.
Who are the subjects in these works and why did you selected them?
The subjects are all people I know personally and who identify as queer – an identity which encompasses not only aspects of gender, sex and sexual orientation but also, and more importantly, a politics which resists or challenges normative narratives around gender and sexuality. It’s a conversation I have with all my models before and during photo shoots, a sharing of thoughts about what it means to be queer and why representation and visibility are important, even though it can be daunting. There are ten body portraits, but there are actually more bodies present in the monotypes, including my own, depicting a range of bodies belonging to a range of queer-identifying people.
In the past you’ve sourced images to work from via social media. In thinking about body politics, how do you think our current social media habits influence perceptions and ideas around gender, beauty and self-worth?
I think social media has been pivotal in broadening our exposure and access to counter-narratives, where the lives, identities and aesthetics of people who may not be represented in mainstream media have substantial followings. Online platforms offer a space for self-expression, and I think that for people who might not always feel understood or valued, finding and seeing others like themselves reflected and celebrated can be hugely validating. It provides a sense of community and expands our ideas of what and who is beautiful, of what and who is possible.
What will you be working on next?
Things you can tell is merely a snapshot of a much larger and ongoing body of work. So I am back in studio continuing with a similar focus on the same subject matter, but experimenting more, going bigger, pushing the work further. There is still so much more to do.