Kathryn Stevens - square dance

  • 4 May 2012

Kathryn Stevens - square dance

The paintings of Kathryn Stevens possess a structural grammar that appears at once calculated and yet arbitrary.  A lucid draughtsmanship is articulated by the transformative power of intense, resonant colour, generating an experiential context for the viewer.

The title of the exhibition, square dance and of the works in this series, pivot, veer, split and split 2, playfully refer to the mathematical use of space in this activity without referring to the actual practice of square dancing itself.

An architecture of seemingly random line is achieved by masking off a narrow strip on a pre-determined angle and applying layers of pigment to the surrounding surface. The resulting white line, while the most dominant element in the composition, contains almost no paint, so that it is the absence rather than the presence of paint that activates spatial relationships, as it bisects the canvas like an electrical impulse.  On closer inspection, darker surface markings are perceptible, creating tension by asserting the materiality of the surface.

In square dance, the architectural drawings are more expansive and pronounced than in the earlier Reflective Elevations series.  They possess a spatial ambiguity, potentially flipping their dimensionality, to either advance or recede.  The resulting instability creates the possibility of movement. 

The larger scale paintings invite a more physical response to the space, and an engagement with it.  Stevens prefers the square format, seeing it as evocative of a more abstract self-referentiality, rather than of depictive intent.  The square is also a solid structural form; it has the fundamental properties of a building block.  Her interest is primarily formal -in the process of construction and the scientific properties of her materials.

The use of linear form refers to the practice of organising pictorial space to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, without using the systems of perspective inherited from the Renaissance.  It acknowledges the place of Albertian perspective within the history of Western painting, while also critiquing the referentiality of this system of representation.  Rather than attaining harmony and proportion through the use of a single vanishing point, as advocated in Alberti's influential treatise on painting de pictura and which became accepted practice, Stevens employs formal elements for their destabilising properties.

The artist's initial training was in civil engineering and its constructive properties inform her approach.  As a child, she developed an interest in the form, structure and workings of things, when she accompanied her father, an electrical engineer, on site visits to dams, transformer stations and other projects.  To a child this was a magical world of complexity and intriguing possibility.

Stevens compiles sketches of the lines of geometric structures in the urban environment, such as buildings or road markings, constructed by and for human use, to shelter and direct the body.  The layers of construction in the painting reference the transparent layers of meshing and scaffolds, on architectural and engineering projects.  A controlled tension is achieved by lines that do not quite intersect, rather like an archaeological remnant, a fragment of a structure or map existing as an incomplete memory.

She analyses how the space opens up with physical movement around it. Her interest in the shapes and structures of buildings is focussed on how the perception or perspective of a building alters in relationship to the human body as it moves through space around the building.  In the painting, the presence of the body is evoked by the structures and spaces which it could inhabit and in relation to which it could be defined.

Yet while ideas do originate in the physical world, the primary concern is not in representing the visible world, or creating the illusion of it.  Instead it considers issues of representationality and pictorial space within the work.  Stevens rejects the depiction of a purely physical space, employing instead a non-illusory space that is concerned with the idea ofspaces opened up within the work. 

The viewer is offered a space to construct or complete in a personal dimension.  A psychological space is constructed that allows the construction of individual meaning on the part of the spectator, articulating imaginative powers beyond the confines of the painting. 

The intense colouration of each image - reds, blues, and greens, also works to subvert the interpretation of form as representative of actual physical structures.  Colour signifies a refusal to relate to objects in the phenomenal world, as it is employed for the imaginative response is might generate.  So the colouration too, becomes a way into the work for the viewer, triggering memories of experiences, objects or places. 

Stevens acknowledges that this capacity for responding to colour and light, and its role in creating visual texture may stem from the pronounced aesthetic sensibility of her mother, whose vivid descriptions of the colour texture and light of things created a vibrant visual image in the mind of her daughter.  Together they visited fabric shops and examined the textures, patterns and colours of the array of fabrics on display. 

She is more concerned with achieving a quality of light that creates conditions for visibility, rather than the actuality of colour. Light introduces a sense of fleeting temporality as it passes over a surface.  The resulting translucence emphasises the idea of a structure rather than the emphatic description of the existence of one. 

The result is a poetic geometry of deconstructive humanism, where the body is defined by its relationship to urban structures.  The absence of human bodily presence is referenced through the implicit occupation of space.  These allusions invite contemplation of the structures of the mind, mapping interior spaces of emotion, thought and experience over time.  In articulating the dual logics of physical and psychological spaces, the viewer is stimulated to a journey beyond the knowable physical environment, into the uncharted territory of the mind.

- Robin Stoney
July, 2000

square dance series.    500x500mm.
veer.                            1370x1370mm.
pivot.                           1370x1370mm.
split.                            4 panels @ 660x660mm.
split 2.                         2 panels @ 760x760mm.

All works oil on acrylic gesso on canvas

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