Written by Ann Compton (Curator, University of Liverpool Art Collections) for the catalogue of Kate Davies’ exhibition at Liverpool University Senate House Gallery, 20 Sept - 9 Nov 2001
In Kate Davies' evocative and compelling paintings figures gaze out from atmospheric landscapes. Engaging with these works is a little like walking into a film halfway through, in that the figures have a powerful presence but their context and history are unknown.
This reference to film is pertinent because although Davies is deeply committed to painting as a medium, her work also uses photography. She often collages photographic images onto the canvas bringing an abrupt point of focus into a loosely sketched landscape. This device has unexpected echoes of the minute detail found in the background of Renaissance portraiture.
Davies's primary visual source is photographs of family and friends. She is intrigued by the way people project a certain image of themselves, particularly in photographs, and seeks to expose the emotions and attitudes that lie beneath this public persona.
Memory plays a vital role in the way we construct both our personal histories and our perceptions of others. Davies' close relationship with her subjects is explored in the paintings; she uncovers her feelings and attitude towards them. The onlooker, lacking this intimacy and first hand knowledge, is implicitly invited to supply their own story.
In the absence of a narrative framework within the work the viewer must approach it intuitively using colour, light and mood to engage with the subject. At a certain level this places Davies within the romantic tradition of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. However, the use of photography and her explorations of self-image have an objective dimension which situates the work outside the purely subjective world of romanticism and closer to a post-modern concern with authenticity.
Kate Davies studied illustration at Brighton Polytechnic from 1972-5 attaining a first class degree. She then took a post-graduate diploma in painting at the Royal Academy Schools from 1979-82. Davies has exhibited in numerous one-person and group exhibitions and her work is represented in a number of public and private collections. She has taught in Further and Higher Education for many years. Davies lives and works in Manchester.
Jessica Lack. The Guardian Review, Picks of the week 24.09.01
Kate Davies’ paintings are disturbing little fantasies. The subjects appear lost against vast
picturesque landscapes, as if they have intruded onto a film set in Truman Show style.
The University of Liverpool, Senate House, Oxford St, Liverpool. To 9 Nov, free.
David Lee. The Jackdaw October 2001
Kate Davies, who refers to her work as “landscapes of emotion”, is a painter from Manchester and has exhibited widely, though infrequently in the north since graduating from the Royal Academy in 1982. Her first exhibition for five years is being staged by the increasingly enterprising Liverpool University in their Senate House Gallery from September 20th to November 9th.
“My current practice of collaging photographic images within a painted image is an extension of this interest in human experience and perception. I am hoping to convey something of the complex and at times arbitrary way in which we construct our own stories and identities, with half-remembered details forming small patches in sharp focus, half-memories which may also be coloured by association or sentiment, or which may contain hints of hidden stories.”
David Lee?. Art Review. June 1997. p14.
How many are there around the country who, like Kate Davies, are interesting figurative painters who don’t live in London and pay the price for their unfashionable style with neglect? Scores of them probably. Kate Davies is exhibiting at Turnpike Gallery, Leigh in Lancashire until July 5. No less a luminary than Richard Kendall has written the catalogue introduction to her exhibition which he concludes as follows: “These are the inventions of an entirely distinct sensibility, a thoughtful and incisive practitioner of her craft who holds out some hope for the painted image.” This reminds us of what ought to be blindingly obvious but which we’ll state anyway: just because an artist exhibits in a former mining town with not even a football team to its name it doesn’t mean that she isn’t among the best artists of her ilk.
The Big Issue in the North. 19 - 25 May 1997
Manchester-based artist Kate Davies aims to create a visual tension between reality and sentimentality with her recently-opened exhibition currently on show at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh, Wigan. Davies uses swirling, dreamy colours combined with black and white snapshots of family groups picnicking amongst rolling heather-clad landscapes to create memorable, if vaguely disturbing work.
Robert Clark. The Guardian Guide. 17 - 23 May 1997
New paintings which combine family snapshots with painterly landscapes of brooding dusk-and-dawn moorlands. There’s obviously still potential in the rolling rural wastes of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire, which have escaped the touristy romanticism of the Lakes, to inspire dark psychological reverie.
Written by Richard Kendall (writer and Degas expert), in 1997 for the catalogue of an exhibition at the Turnpike Gallery, in Lancashire.
If one category of painting has defied history, it is surely that of figuration, and especially the precise, lingering representation of the human face and body in a naturalistic setting. Since the invention of photography a century and a half ago, the death of painting had been announced with monotonous regularity, to be just as often refuted by the sheer tenacity and invention of a new artist, a new movement or even a single extraordinary picture. In our age, figurative painting is under greater pressure than ever, weakened by feeble academicism, excluded by narrow visions of modernism and seemingly undermined by the electronic media. Yet some of the finest talents have fought back, joining Francis Bacon in his attempt to ‘deepen the game’, identifying with Lucian Freud’s desire to ‘see how far I can go’ and affirming Giacometti’s belief that the ‘head is sovereign’.
It is this infinitely demanding pictorial territory that Kate Davies has chosen to occupy throughout her career as an artist. Completing her long apprenticeship with three years at the Royal Academy, that former bastion of British figurative art, she learnt to work from life and study the model, until she felt she could ‘draw the figure in her sleep’. Since then, she has staked out her distinctive corner of the figure-painting terrain, an intimate space populated by friends and loved ones, children and domestic animals in familiar rooms and holiday scapes. Such themes tend to heighten, rather than relieve, the artist’s challenges, threatening excessive sentiment or a descent into mere inventory-making, rewarding the meretricious or gratifying the prurient.
Though her painting practice has evolved significantly over the past decade, Kate Davies has explored both decorative colour and thickly impasted paint - both devices that can distance the viewer from the subject - and more recently a kind of studied detachment that refused the easy reading. Typically, the figures in these paintings stand and gaze, or sit in brooding retrospection, each without reference to the others and each surrounded by a differently nuanced emptiness. Where we might expect contact and narrative engagement, between a child and its pet, for example, it is usually denied, though the opposite possibility - of violent confrontation or anguish - is avoided with equal deliberation.
Kate Davies is far too alert and self-questioning a painter to be content with such negative qualities, however, and it is in the precarious balance between renunciation and affirmation, between the making and unmaking of her expressive language, that the strength of these pictures lies. Capable of great lyricism, as the charcoal and pastel drawings show, she frequently opts for a kind of awkwardness, a blunt acceptance of the facts of gravity and bodily substance. At home with brilliant colour and dense paint, she has recently produced work in near monochrome and the palest of washes, as if to subvert the excesses of her own talent. And by combining areas of high finish with bare paper or canvas and seductively modulated tones with rough outline, she reminds us of the artifice of her art. In this sense, she has fully grasped the predicament of figure painters today, who must continually unlearn their skills and reinvent their rules of engagement, denying the innocence of their craft even when - perhaps especially when - it appears at its simplest.
One of Kate Davies’ most striking characteristics as a painter is a restlessness with her own style. A year or two ago, her pictures were emphatically drawn, often relying on a supple, looping line to energise a remembered figure or describe the features of a dreamlike face, even as strong colour made its incursions into the same space. In the more recent work, two principal changes are apparent. Now painterliness is in the ascendant, from the broad veils of silver, grey, mauve and pale blue that evoke sky and sea to the rubbings and abrasions that define her human subjects. Apparently contradicting this development, however, the artist has begun to derive her compositions from that least-painterly of sources, the photograph, reworking snapshots of childhood days on the beach and blurred prints of parents and siblings (in the latest works, even incorporating reproductions into the picture surface). For a painter in a post-Pop, image- saturated world, this is a high-wire act of some audacity, risking slickness and mannerism on the one hand, retro-chic on the other. In the best of these pictures, a beguiling and at the same time unsettling equilibrium is achieved between the familiar vocabulary of the camera and its gestural context. We seem at ease with such scenes, yet allowed no comfortable response to them, seduced by the delicacy of their light and atmosphere, yet affronted by their clashing pictorial codes.
It is characteristic of this artist’s quiet resolve that her latest sequence of paintings carry the argument a stage further, on to altogether more contentious ground. By attaching photographs (in the form of enlarged black-and-white or colour photocopies) directly onto the canvas surface, she commits an act at once vulgar and inspired, fixing the composition in our material culture yet offering the possibility of spaces and encounters beyond it. Even more than in the preceding work the spectators eyes move back and forth between two worlds, encouraged by subtle incursions of paint onto paper and echoes of the photographs tonality in the larger picture, but always conscious of the distinction. By not denying the qualities of either - the graininess of the photocopy, the luscious washes of oil colour - Kate Davies raises the professional stakes and simultaneously intensifies the visual dialogue on offer, posing questions about orders of reality and conventions of depiction, about photographed experience and imaginative freedom. Is a bad print from a family album more ‘true’ than a sensuously-brushed evocation of a similar scene? Can a single painting accommodate both memory and actuality, the passage of time from childhood to maturity?
The artist herself has called her pictures ‘landscapes of emotion’ and there is no disguising, at the heart of her project, a real if understated concern for her subjects - the anonymous children, remembered self-portraits and pensive peers. Space is used to separate and define their existences, colour to hint at melancholy or the ordinariness of communal living, not merely to construct a well-made rectangle of paint. The latest pastel drawings show the intensity as well as the occasional bleakness of this engagement, in the proximity of a strongly characterised head or the density of hatchings and abrasions on a colour surface. These are the inventions of an entirely distinct sensibility, a thoughtful and incisive practitioner of her craft who holds out some hope for the painted image.