I’ve been watching Kate Stevens‘ latest body of work unfold – simultaneously bold and vulnerable, but lush all the way. The paintings that make up her new exhibition Sky Blue Sky follow on from a series of languid watercolour drawings I fell in love with last year, so I relished being able to spend some time in Kate’s studio in preparation to write her exhibition essay. Read on to see where it took me, and visit the exhibition at Nancy Sever Gallery, Canberra, opening September 21st.
We consume hours of imagery each day, the majority of it virtual, subject to numerous filters and reaching us via a complex series of algorithms that ensures we see only ‘the most’: the most shocking, the most endearing, most tear-jerking and most awe-inspiring.
The origins of these images are not important, and who took them has been rendered irrelevant. There is little pause to consider whether or not they are real and true or in some way doctored and enhanced. Consumed at great speed in scrolling swathes, disjointed and erratic, our reactions slacken. In this homogenisation we disengage, glaze over, cease to feel, to be moved. Besides, how do you process images of someone’s breakfast next to images of war?
Behind all this, the sights of our immediate everyday, our familiar surroundings, exist only as the scenery in which we wait for something to happen. We believe that what is worth seeing is not our own, and so swarm towards ‘ordained’ spectacles elsewhere; via planes, trains, at the end of long hikes – arriving at the same destination to take the same photo, adding it to the virtual pile, while none of the journey mattered or was captured. Despite the billions of images in the public realm, available on a moment’s whim, there persists a desire for ownership or possession via image-making, the acknowledgement that ‘I was here’ – and somewhere out there I have a picture to prove it.
Kate Stevens’ painting is heavily informed by the image scramble of Instagram, Pinterest and other emergent share platforms, but increasingly, amongst this inundation, it is the places and sights of the in-between spaces, of the journeys, that demand her attention.
Returning to the adage ‘paint what you know’, Stevens followed her growing compulsion away from iconographic sights towards the views around her regional hometown. A return to what is real and true, what is personal.
It is these surroundings close at hand that we know best, but don’t know we know – the motifs of the familiar. We see them every day in all weather, tumbling from our different homes and various warm beds into cars, funneling onto the same roads, peering out various car windows with our minds elsewhere.
Stevens contributes to the tradition of Australian landscape painting while remaining upfront as to the manner in which we commonly encounter it – the occasional bush walk but mostly via long stretches of highway, in incidental snatches on the way to somewhere else. Here the windows and mirrors are both filter and frame. Within the car we inhabit an intimate space, nestled within a vast landscape. In homage to our daily travels Stevens evokes the commuter sublime.
Exposing the process, of ‘getting there rather than being there’, resonates with Stevens’ approach to art-making overall, and there is plentiful evidence within these works of her presence, both physically and materially. Painting, too, is an attempt at possession. To document both place and headspace; the feeling of being in that moment, to deeply understand a fleeting subject; each particular line of trees, each horizon scored by a particular mountain range, the dip of the hills just so. It is a quest to pin down the colour and light that drenches our experience – the yellow of our mornings and the purple of our evenings, ceilings of blue between, casting our minds back to days and nights innumerable.