Becoming Sanguine

The dance along the artery The circulation of the lymph Are figured in the drift of stars

“Cadmium Red Deep, or Cadmium Red Purple or Scheveningen Purple Brown, watercolours or oil by Old Holland, safflower oil because it doesn’t go yellow”: this is what Kate Walters replied when I asked her about the media and the reds that predominate in her work.

It isn’t quite sanguine, her red, not exactly the red chalk you see in some of the Old Masters and in traditional drawing since. Sanguine has more yellow in it, and so is more rusty brown. But Walters’ cadmiums richly evoke it, and with that evocation come numerous connotations. Sanguine is a colour and a material, a noun and an adjective, a set of attributes. Above all, it relates to the life of the body. Sanguine connotes blood.

Kate Walters favours above all a near sanguine purplish red. It is darkly beautiful. Few paintings have none of it, many paintings are made exclusively in it. But it’s paint, it runs, like blood.

There is an old distinction between drawing and painting that does not apply here. Within the painting there is exquisite drawing. And it is sometimes impossible to say which is which – is this a painting or a drawing, is this section drawn or painted? Does it matter? Yes – because painting and drawing are traditionally mapped on to feeling and thinking in European art. Painting, colour, the emotive; drawing, black & white, the cerebral. These are inseparable in this work.

The same continuity exists between the media – the oil and the watercolour techniques segue into one another, so that the opacity of oil and the transparency of watercolour may equally be used to create difference spaces in the work. The bodies or spaces emerge out of underpainted areas as from oils, there are transparent layers, a technique from watercolour, key forms defining the bodies are charcoal lines, a technique from a graphic approach These spaces are often layered, but not always, sometimes bordered, or clearly delineated, but not always, and sometimes continuous (or consanguineous) with the bodies. They all contribute to the sense of constant formation and re-formation, of an unstable shifting of any given life into other life.

Watercolour layers convey time differently from oil. This is because you can never completely cover a mark. You can change it in various ways, but you can’t cover it. In oil, you can. The great colorists know that what is underneath influences the surface, but that is already a difference in spatio-temporality. The possibility of distinct patterns of time underlies the transfigurations of Walters’ bodies.

These bodies may be human or animal or plant, as in “Tree” (mixed media 2008), where the canopy is like a placenta, or a reddened brain, and the trunk is the nerves, growing through a blackening cloud. (The cloud has red in it, though, and blood turns black). Or again, in “Roots and Crown” (watercolour 2009). Perhaps this is the tree of Osiris, where, in the legend, the murdered god’s body was put into a box and thrown into the Nile. The box lodged in a tamarisk bush, which grew through the power of the god to become a mighty tree. Osiris’ wife, Isis, searched and searched, and eventually found him. Through her mourning for him, she wove a spell in song, turning herself into a bird and enabling Osiris to enter her in spirit. She conceived their son, Horus, the bird god, containing the sky. Horus is often symbolised either by the falcon, a man with a bird’s head or the wedjat, or eye of Horus. The wedjat is the healing symbol seen on amulets. This is a story of life out of death, of healing and transformation.

This last is taken up, for instance, in “Transfiguration” (watercolour 2009), with its deer/horse that is a kneeling human figure. Like Isis, Osiris and Horus, this body is animal and human. Bodies in Walters’ work are rarely simply one or the other, they frequently appear, containing or emerging from each other, or from an enveloping shape or smudge that either renders them permeable to the atmosphere or makes them seem to form out of it. This shift one’s attention to the possibilities of spirit or soul, call it what you will; the matter of life as it passes through all bodies. They are not separated or completed beings, but rather embodiments in transition, with previous forms and future forms held in suspension around the present moment.

To most of us, the most familiar manifestation of this is the pregnant mother. She holds another spirit within her, she passes from being one to being two to being one again, something the man can only fleetingly know through sex, and even then, he does not share the bloodstream as a mother does with her child. It is as if the capacity of the mother’s body to carry another being were a general metaphor for relating, regardless of sex or gender.

This is not an easy thought, but I think it is important to understanding not only the meanings evoked in the work, but also the quality of feeling, which is similarly original and rare. You can see it in the paintings where there seems to be another head appearing between the legs of figures. Of course, this invokes birth. But the figures can be almost reversible, an impression reinforced by the paint runs that can result when the canvases are turned during composition. Not every artist revolves their work to look at it with different sides at the top, of course, though many do, especially when drawing. Thin washes are especially prone to running unless you work flat, and even then, they can ooze, creating a different chance effect.

In Walters, the runs are evident and intentional. They become a powerful element of technique, one that she makes the most of. In the instance of the emergent heads in Man and Woman with their Babies (mixed media 2008), it suggests a dual orientation: the bodies could be giving birth, but they could also be either way up. Spirit must give birth to itself; we must become ourselves. We must all know in our bodies the maternal.

A bluish-red cloud hovers over the upper quartile of the painting. Looking again at it, the shape of a horse is incipient in it, and just below, the outline of a bird. The bird follows the shape of one head, indenting the cloud as the hand of the other figure does. They are all related through shape, they all seem to enclose or be enclosed. They are aspects of the maternal as a moment of transformation and of the entry of whatever it is that animates a body.

The other aspect of this polyphonic reversibility is the moment of moving on. Death is everywhere in these paintings, its proximity a constant reminder of the fragility of the shape-shifters that populate them. You can see through them, they are fragmented and partial, they foreground the visceral. At the same time, they hold before you the astounding facts of living, of life itself.

Professor Penny Florence Professor of Fine Art History and Theory The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. 30 vi 09

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