Monday, 21 September 2015

An Unsettling Vision: Kate Gottgens

Kate Gottgens, Harlequin Mother (2010)
Painting seems to be back in vogue these days, to judge from the range of new books devoted to the subject. I tend to struggle with the writing in books about contemporary art, which can sometimes seem deliberately opaque, but the reproductions in books like 'Painting Today' (Phaidon) and 'A Brush with the Real' (Elephant Books) are impressive. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that these books take a global view of the subject. It's both inspiring and rather bewildering to think of so many artists beavering away all round the world.

Red Interior (2012)
A couple of months ago I was flicking through '100 Painters of Tomorrow' (Thames and Hudson) when I was struck by a painting of a 1960s interior. In mood it reminded me a little of Eric Fischl's 'Bad Boy', only there were no people in this picture. Backlit by wide windows, the room was both real and insubstantial, a setting for a dream.

Kate Gottgens, On the Ferry (2015)
The artist, I learnt, was Kate Gottgens, a South African painter born in the mid-1960s. You can see her work online, or in a new book published by her Cape Town gallery, SMAC, or in person next month at another acronymically named gallery, NUNC, in Antwerp.

Something about her paintings appeals to me strongly, but I'm not sure what it is. There are certainly echoes of modern painters I admire, from Gerhard Richter to Peter Doig; like them she works from photographs, and like them uses this material to create distinctive paintings. In her case the found photos tend to depict the family lives of white middle class South Africans, while the paintings suggest an alternative reality - beautiful sometimes, but unsettling, even nightmarish.

Kate Gottgens, Wilderness (2014)
In a commentary accompanying paintings in her book, Alexandra Dodd writes:

It is written on the photograph - 'Wilderness'. She takes it both literally and figuratively. It is a small black and white image from the early 20th century of two female figures on a boat. As she paints, the foliage morphs into lurking phantasmal shapes. The rumour of a face emerges from the shadowy bulrushes. The vegetation takes on the feel of a headdress or a mask...

Rowing, Kate Gottgens (2015)
Sometimes the original image in the photo is still recognisable, but on other occasions figures almost disappear, while areas of negative space or minor details are emphasized. Faces become obscured, vehicles melt. There's a mushroom cloud in one painting, which makes me wonder whether Kate grew up having nightmares of nuclear holocaust like I did. I don't know the answer to this, nor have I managed to glean much about her, apart from the fact that she has a family. Her book and website are refreshingly free of artist statements and biographical blither.

Kate Gottgens, Milk Teeth (2015)
Kate Gottgens' solo exhibition, The Rising Sea, is at NUNC Contemporary, Antwerp, from 1st October. You can see more of her work here.


  1. Your final sentence – that Gottens' website is refreshingly free of artist statements and biographical blither – was enough to take me straight there. In an age that has seen artists' websites develop into cloying self-written PR presentations, it is indeed refreshing to find folk who have the self-wareness to know that their work speaks for itself and can hold its own without the need of this. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. I knew nothing of her work before now.


  2. Thanks for your comment. Sometimes an artist's biography is obviously important to a particular project (see my previous post), but I've never really understood the point of an artist's statement. But then I'm not an artist!