Kate Walters’ Bodies Without Organs


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe a difference between smooth and striated space. Striated space is settled or territorialized, delineated, conquered, mapped, articulated. Smooth space is territory for nomads – moved through and lived with but neither exploited nor conquered. The shifting desert traversed like a sidewinder, tracks soon blown over; the snowscape bleaching into a glaucous grey sky on which human nomads are small tears in a fabric soon repaired after their sapping journey. The journey itself is mapped in advance by the ice-threaded treads of animals and the tracks of their collective breath left as low clouds. In contrast are the tent pegs of conquerors turned into foundations over which concrete is poured and steel and glass bodies rise. Shift these metaphors to the body and a body that is mapped, territorialized, conquered, is a body with organs. A body as organ systems is articulated and in pieces – the vascular system, muscle, bone, the autonomic and central nervous systems, the lymph system, the reproductive system, the digestive system

But take away the skin – the largest organ of the body – and look without articulation, seeing the body-without-organs, and you see a lake, weather, tenderness, a breeze, a growing bruise, a wheatfield in motion, relaxation, stricture, pulse, whispers and cries. You see the processes of alchemy – burning substances to dry embers, coagulation, dissolution, salting of fertile ground, the emergence of the blues of bruising, the yellowing of the white as something goes off, the stink of putrefaction, and the glorious swelling of the peacock’s tail as layered rainbows on green silk. Strip away the organs and grasp the body in eye contact – again, in contact – and what you take in is a smear, an approximation, a trace, a ghost, but a whole and not its parts. This is the process of painting as if an animal, as an animal, or as humanimal.

Kate Walters deals in traces, animal spoor and doubles merging in a way that brings you back to the body-without-organs, the existence of the nomad, the spittle on a plant that burns off in the early sun. Dyads, interiors and fusions pervade her work, as does mystery. But the overriding sense is one of delicacy, of soft footfall, of leaving little trace, despite the strength of colour, often as dark as tar. This is not to suggest that the work is slight – far from it, the big themes of birth, transgression and containment run through the body of work, but they seem to wear their burdens lightly. And the body of the work resists tethering. This is because of Kate’s idiosyncratic use of containment – one body in another, animal-in-human, human-in-animal, human-in-human and animal-in-animal, suggesting not birth but protection, hibernation, involvement and involution. But a sense of contamination lurks beyond this. Containment may lead to infection, the seeds of which lurk in the borders of her work.

In a watercolour ‘Little Wing’ (also known as My Brother the Bird) a woman is simultaneously descending from the dark foliage of a tree and ascending to become that foliage which is also a spreading wing, a fan, likely to draw her away. But her feet are rooted in a birth caul that is also a transparent and dislocated trunk of a tree whose flowering head is a black bird, its wings clipped. The bird looks stumped. The woman looks stumped. They seem locked, but paradoxically there is no struggle. A strange sense of stasis and then transparency sit side by side as time standing still is stitched into the work, and the blacks bleach out as the eye scans. In alchemical terms, the nigredo, or darkness, is haunted by the rubedo or reddening – the bringing of lifeblood, which the spirit woman seems to crave.

Kate’s own title of her work ‘Generative Absence’ sums up the body-without-organs, the gentle cuff that keeps you awake but neither hurts nor insults, so that you remain suspended between sleep and waking in a world that is complete in itself, without echoes. Earlier work has a regular motif of animal-human enantiodromia where animal and human are poised as likely to turn into the Other. This is played out within tight borders and tar-dark backgrounds, as if within a cave. This world of pitch, paradoxically stripped of its stickiness, is like a drumhead, taught. And itself is pasted on a containing world of colour, as figure and ground. Madonna with Serpent is set in this umbrous underworld that remains placid but carries a lingering threat. The Madonna has snakes for arms and they seem content with their tar-dark world. Newer work has broken out of this more sombre frame to celebrate rising figures carrying promise, zest and oxygenation rather than compact and dark soil. ‘Shepherd with Goat Woman’ shows the realization of the marriage that produces the humanimal, the goat herder looking on in approval as the human loses the desire to stand upright and wills herself into the four-legged world.

Alan Bleakley
Professor of Medical Humanities Falmouth University.

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