Kate Whiteford

By | January 15, 2016

G.H. We wanted to ask you about working with both an inherited language and also a cultural language.

K.W. It is a bit like voices which can be transcribed into a contemporary idiom. I started looking at this whole idea especially at St. Andrews–this underlay of the culture and how it had been destroyed. I think a lot of the work comes from just this experience of being in a certain place. I had been looking at Italian sources for about four or five years before that; so this was a change of direction, I was looking for indigenous culture. I tend to do that, work through a certain theme or explore a whole area within the work. I did that when I lived in Italy in the 70’s and I did a whole series of work that was to do with that culture and how it survives; how we discover things and how a thing’s meaning is transformed and filters into our day to day existence. We have been conditioned by this history which we can’t ignore.

R.F. Where would you place yourself in a painting history?

K.W. I think that a lot of things came out of the 70’s. I trained as a painter in ’73. I was very interested in a lot of the conceptual work of the 70’s. I see my work as post-conceptual. It is painting as a means of exploring ideas i.e. using painting in a non-narrative, non-expressionist way.

R.F. Painting as text?

K.W. There is a sub-text to the paintings.

R.F. Is this the idea of having a store house of your own language. Mark Rothko paintings for example, he used a schematic form where he altered the colours. Within the context of his body of work it had great significance. That seems to be the kind of area you are working with, the difference between what you were doing now and what you were doing before Is the important thing so you look at that rather than trying to find meaning in some unique form.

K.W. Yes there is this continuity but not in a schematic sense. I am working with certain ideas which recur and I re-work in different ways.

R.F. Is it like saying the viewer understands more if they’ve worked through it with you?

K.W. Yes. I think that is often true and, I find, they come back to see further work. People write to me about the work and draw their own analysis of it, and they come to see the next piece of work. But that doesn’t preclude an understanding of the work on first viewing.

R.F. Is the idea of audience important?

K.W. Yes. If you put out the work, you hope that it touches other people and they will connect with it. It should be a circular relationship.

G.H. There are often explanations that go along with the pieces, do you feel that it is necessary to have them?

K.W. These explanations on the gallery wall are never put up by me. It’s always the galleries that do that to fulfill an educational programme. I think I will accept that people need a ‘lead in’, it can be seen as arrogant to some people on a certain level if you just put up the work with no explanation at all but in the end its the experience of the work that counts.

G.H. The work that you were doing on the Picts, do you find that people can relate to it more in Scotland?

K.W. No. These symbols are universal, they are everywhere. Many of the sources are from Brittany as well; I think people will recognise them. They are there, but I don’t like to be too specific about them. The work isn’t about the symbols–it’s hard to explain. For example, take the whole series of Symbol Stones, the drawings. Now they were done in a negative format. What you see of the fish doesn’t exist, while the outline exists only as a negative. There’s a metaphor in there. The charcoal drawings as well, are very, very, dense. The drawings come through but you barely see them. It’s not just about that symbol, it’s about how we look and how we understand things. Well it’s about perception. In the small book at The Whitechapel some of the images are black on black. Maybe it’s hinting at reference to the fact that what we actually perceive isn’t necessarily reality.

G.H. Do you think the titles are important?

K.W. They are clues that lead into the work. What is important is that people pick up on the resonance of the work. In Echo Series the use of complementary colours gives a perceptual flicker which bounces across space. The title here can be taken almost literally as a visual echo, or to suggest cultural echoes.

R.F. I found that I couldn’t get right up close.

K.W. The flicker can make the painting difficult to read. You can look st one section and another section will be out of focus and there is colour movement on the periphery of vision. This is intentional. I want to draw attention to the art of looking at a painting. You’re unsure whether the subject of the painting is the painted image or its after image. It could be a visual metaphor for memory.

G.H. It’s very powerful–I had thought that maybe you would use the space in a similar way in Edinburgh to extend the painting to cover all four walls?

K.W. That’s right I suppose some people saw that and had similar expectations for The Whitechapel but they are two quite different kinds of spaces. The symmetrical arrangement of the room in Edinburgh with its single doorway gave an enclosed space that allowed for a total installation.

G.H. It was powerful because it was everywhere it bounced and there were echoes.

K.W. I want the work to operate on different levels. It should have a conceptual level, and aesthetic level, and there is also humour in some of the work as well. You walk into that room in Edinburgh and the painting bounces off each wall and you are slightly disorientated. This is what painting can do. It can be extremely powerful. You can work with architecture. It doesn’t have to be in a frame. I enjoy pushing the medium, this idea of not being able to focus, a metaphor again: What do we understand? We have all this information at hand–science is so much yet there is so much more to us as human beings. I am obsessed by what we actually hold in memory and how memory connects us to the past. It’s a fantastic phenomenon. We can project into the future and I think that it is very important that our human capacity isn’t dissolved in any way.

G.H. You do a lot of work on site–how do you think about this and what response do you get from people visiting eg, the oil paintings on Calton Hill and at Outpost Art?

K.W. People seemed to respond very positively, especially to the piece on Calton Hill, as they had to walk up to the site and climb up a monument to see the piece. They seemed to enjoy this sense of participation and discovery. Another piece, in St. Peters Church in Cambridge, “Gavrinis”, used symbols from Brittany and Celtic symbols with an optical red/green flicker in it. Placing it in that site was almost like an historical document. It worked because of the airy quality of the church with northern light. Apparently the interiors were originally painted red and green with very strong colour. It’s very good to work on site, so many things are important: the lighting, good natural light in this case, in an old church without electricity. In the painting the light changes throughout the day and is not static. I like the work to change depending on when you go to see it. That’s why that piece at The Whitechapel is oil and gesso. The gesso throws back the light and the piece changes dramatically at different times of day.

R.F. What do you feel the difference is about actually tackling work using symbols and then work which is using light and disorientating effects?

K.W. They are one and the same. The more optical ones have come about gradually–there’s a series of them over the past three or four years. They have actually become more and more simplified. They started off with quite overt symbols then simple arches then repeats of this shape at Riverside and in Edinburgh, which had the arches repeated around a room. The most recent piece at The Whitechapel has become more simplified still, just using lines. The first of the series was “Gavrinis” which came out of the experience of a visit to the passage grave in Brittany of the same name. The carved symbols on the walls and ceiling seemed to cut into the memory.

G.H. A lot of drawings have definite symbols yet the paintings have moved away from that. Do you feel it necessary to keep working from the drawings?

K.W. Yes, it’s very true. The big piece on Calton Hill was the end of a phase of work. That big piece came after four or five years of working with these symbols and that was a culmination of that phase. The imagery has always been very reduced in the drawings anyway. The paintings simply distill that information further.

R.F. Do you think the symbols destract?

K.W. I think yes, there is a danger I have found that people get too caught up with the symbols. They are almost too loaded. They interfere now with what I’m actually trying to do with the work. However I feel I want to keep that resonance but not overtly use the symbol. It’s very difficult because the work is changing all the time. I’ve just finished a big twenty-seven foot drawing at Southampton. It’s dense with symbols–the arch etc.–but it’s a very minimal piece. That’s the most recent work.

G.H. Does literature influence you?

K.W. Yes, I was very interested in Greek literature for a while, especially The Oresteia. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, his poem “The Alchemist”. A series of works came out of these poems. But the work is not tied to anything specific. I like the idea of a contemporary poem being built up in fragments from the classics. I was trying to do paintings using fragments from classical history–a kind of parallel there. Also Marguerite Yourcenar, especially “The Abyss” with its focus on the alchemist.

G.H. What about alchemy?

K.W. I suppose when you’re painting you are trying to do that aren’t you? It’s a transformation. Working with different types of pigment, just the pure colour, we can transcend matter, or can we? Maybe we can’t but we can try. It has to do with my philosophy–whatever you do should be an intervention. Although the work is not overtly political, whatever you do should function within the society, even minimal change, minimal intervention can grow.

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