Freedom through materiality: British artist Kate Dunn exploring identity and a sense of self through the tactile qualities of paint.
I’ve known artist Kate Dunn for just over a decade now, she is one of my oldest and closest friends and it’s been beautiful witnessing the transformation of her artistic style and in turn, transformation of self. Kate has always been an artist, and a serious one at that- a typology I’d discern as a constant questioning of one’s own experiences, inner landscape and physical reality. Her artistic language has evolved and morphed through various manifestations, unsurprisingly due to her variegated education and travels. She has recently moved into her first studio on her own in East Ham, through the company Artcore; a visual arts charity, which amongst other pursuits, helps provide affordable studio spaces for creative’s around the country. The studio is an amazing space with high ceilings and lots of natural light; it feels tucked away and secluded from the abrasive energy of London. Since this move, her work has taken on a more introspective and reflective quality. Her initial training gave her remarkable Realist technical skills, but since, she has taken it upon herself to deconstruct, undo and ‘unlearn’ the strictures that were placed upon her. In doing so, she’s fostered a new visual language based on an abstract materiality, which has led her to a newfound sense of freedom and dialogue of feeling.
You have had a diverse arts education studying at various levels in London, Florence and doing residencies in China and Italy, How have your studies informed your practice?
Doing my foundation at Central Saint Martins was a learning curve in the sense that we’d spend five days coming up with a concept and then have two days to actualise it, I realised that in order for me to make work where the concept and idea was that strong, my skill would have to surpass itself, so that it would become a shorthand almost. After my foundation, I was desperate to go to Glasgow, but didn’t get in, so I decided to go and do a short course in technical drawing at The Florence Academy of Art. Whilst I was there, the teachers were encouraging me to apply for the full training and I found that my skill and craft were rapidly developing… so I ended up being there for four years. It was super traditional training; where you’re not allowed to touch paint until you’ve drawn with charcoal for a year and a half; nude model everyday; sight-size method. The first day that you get there, the director of the school tells you that if you want to be an ‘Artist’ you should leave now because this is about technical training. Which is not a negative thing at all, because you do come away from it having an incredible skill set. There were moments where I’d question what I was doing and think- am I missing out on the most creative years of my life here? I started teaching there in my third year and was asked to stay for a fourth year to continue teaching in exchange for a studio. Which was great, but I did end up feeling like I knew I had to leave, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I always knew I never wanted to be a realist artist. And that’s when I came back to London and did my MA at City and Guilds, which completely changed the visual language and form of my work
How did this culminate in the work and style you produce now?
Just before the MA, I had this realisation that I’d only known paint in the imitation of something else; so paint becoming flesh or paint becoming a cup in a still life. I never really understood what paint as paint was, so I set out to spend the last eight or so months of my Masters trying to grapple with my own relationship with paint. Initially, it felt quite distant from what I’d been doing, but actually it was a direct result of my training in Florence, as I wouldn’t have necessarily gone down that path if I hadn’t felt it was something I’d never explored before. And this resulted in a series that I’m still working on now- the arch paintings; they originally took their shape and size from Fra Angelico’s frescoes in Florence in San Marco, where he painted a different fresco in each monks cell. I think initially I started cutting this altarpiece shape because I was really interested in having a dialogue with this period of history which is so present in Florence, there’s practically an altarpiece, Madonna and church on every street corner. There’s all of this incredible imagery which subconsciously forms part of an archive in your head, so I found that even when I started making these more material based works, for some reason, I kept thinking back to all these religious icons and images that I’d seen in Italy. In a sense, my MA show ended up becoming a homage to the time I’d spent there.
I guess when you’re in a city like Florence you end up taking this formalised/symbolic visual language for granted, and it’s not until you return to a Metropolitan city like London that you become aware of how cut off we are from a centralised form of religion or spirituality. Would you say this is a guiding framework to some extent?
I’m using quite obvious religious references within my work; or they’re obvious to me- but I guess once you take the figures out and abstract the subject to the extent that I do, it’s harder for people to connect with that framework. A lot of people think they’re windows as well, which is interesting in itself. But I think generally when you talk about art there is an innate link to spirituality. As an artist, you’ve given yourself this journey of wandering and wondering through things for the rest of your life, this quest of exploration. And it’s sort of analogous with the quest for spirituality in a sense. I think that when you encounter great art it can have a profound, transcendental effect- nothing else exists; you can lose your sense of balance, your eyes can get tunnel vision and I think that is relative to the type of experience you can have in a spiritual/religious context. Just like when you go into a church and the quiet, contemplative and intimate experience that it cultivates.
Do you think that’s the power of great art?
I like to feel something. However, I’m also very interested in materials, so often my brain bypasses that possibility of feeling before I can even get there because I’m dissecting something; I think that’s quite a natural thing as a maker. However, I think if something can make me feel something now, then that’s amazing, I get that so much less now than I used to- partly because of that deconstructing thing- but I am also a sucker for something that is really material based and I suppose what I’ve learnt, is that through materiality there is a huge vocabulary of feeling that even though it may be abstract has enormous possibility and power.
I guess when a work is figurative it makes it easier for the viewer to relate to. Do you ever think you’ll return to figurative forms?
Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. I think in some ways the works are still figurative. They’re very bodily, especially the works I’m making at the moment, a lot of them are made using my hands, so I think the presence of the body is still very much within the work. The reason why I stopped depicting the figure was partly to understand my relationship to paint, but I think also what I came to realise is that with figurative work it’s such a literal language that I felt I had to have something specific to say and I feel like what I’m trying to understand now is so much more abstract than that. And I think I’m discovering new states of feeling and experiences via this abstract language.
Tell me a bit about the process of conceiving and actualising the work?
It’s never exactly the same; I don’t do studies though, probably because of the aversion I’ve built up towards them from my studies in Florence! With these works I usually start with a phrase, a feeling, or a colour; or several of those elements that I know I want to work with. Often poetry and music come in to that. I’ll normally have one element of the painting in my mind, for instance, I might be able to see there will be an area of light and it’s going to be overtaken by darkness, and I’ll have an idea of what those colours are going to be and then I have to work around that with the rest of the image, and as I’m going forward with that I can relate it to a personal experience of mine; maybe a relationship or an experience within the studio itself, it could be an interaction, it could be many different things.
With figurative work, I can imagine it is easier to find an end point- once you feel a likeness has been achieved- whereas with abstract work it must be harder to walk away because you could continue to add and subtract endlessly?
I think overworking can definitely be an issue. I’m usually searching for a feeling that I’m hoping to convey within the work and I’ll rarely achieve it precisely, but I’ll stop either when I’ve discovered a feeling that I hadn’t expected at all or one that I’ve never experienced before. I just try and trust my instinct; working very aggressively and fast and then take a step back and see what happens. Also, when I was on my MA and using a lot of paint, I’d have these experiences where I’d be putting on the paint and having these very physical and visceral reactions- I’d literally be wretching in response to the medium. I think you just know when it’s doing something and you know whether you like what it’s doing or you don’t. And even if I don’t I may just leave it, and let it sit for a day or two.
What drives your work?
No work is ever made in isolation, it’s always reflective of everything you’ve seen, made or experienced. My work is also driven by my time spent in Italy- but perhaps more as a structure to work against rather than within. The drive itself also emanates from my attempts to understand my relationship with the medium. It’s no coincidence that since I’ve moved into a studio on my own- which takes me some time to travel to; where I wont really speak to anyone at all, all day; since this experience of greater isolation the work has gone from being expansive and more external (expansive in the sense of history of art, thinking about theory and my place within those narratives) to insular and internal. I think that’s natural after education, where you’re in an environment with lots of people who are constantly asking questions about your work. Here its very quiet, and I’m just having this one on one dialogue with the work, and no one can see it for weeks or months if I don’t want.
How do you see your work progressing in the future?
I hadn’t done any arch paintings since my MA course, and I was suddenly like ‘I really want to work on them again’. My brain was saying ‘no, you did a whole MA installation show and it was finalised and complete’. Then, I realised I hadn’t exhausted it at all; it’s just a shape- a structure to work against. It creates a dialogue between a certain period of history, which is probably just indulgent for me to some extent, because I’m not sure everyone accesses that when they see it, but it gives me pleasure. So recently I’ve been thinking about really exhausting an idea, the concept of exhaustion and pushing and squeezing something, an idea or form till I really can’t get any more out of it. One thing I know is that I’ll continually do by exploring and investigating my relationship with paint and the different emotions and experiences I can discover through that relationship.
Words by Charlie Siddick