KATE TEALE I Am Not Empty, I Am Open
STUDIO 10 | APRIL 15 – MAY 8, 2016
When it comes to the poetry of intimate spaces, Gaston Bachelard remains unrivalled in the probity of his insights and the wonderful lyricism of his analyses. In his oft-cited Poetics of Space, the French philosopher examines the house—that most intimate of human spaces—as a potent metaphor for our humanness, sheltering not just our bodies but also our deepest dreams, memories, thoughts, and imaginings. The book is a thrill to read and re-read. But for all its emotive charge (citations of poetry abound in his work), Bachelard’s endeavor is plagued by a certain irony: being a discipline of pure thought, philosophy can only describe phenomenological subjects. Unlike the corporeal medium of art, it cannot embody them.
In her latest show of paintings and drawings, British artist Kate Teale does just this. In Bachelardian fashion, she explores the rich domain of inhabited space by focusing on two particularly fraught zones: the illuminated window and the bed. Here the poetics of the house are rendered incarnate in ten works whose material presence is as powerful as the scenes they depict. Executed with exquisite skill, hovering between figuration and abstraction, the works make a palpable statement about their subject—which, although nowhere present in the scenes, is the human being at the core of our places of shelter.
In the gallery’s main space, three large-scale paintings depict the vast expanses of an empty bed and are punctuated by four smaller works, each featuring a single window seen from without, the warm glow of its light intensified by the dark night surrounding it. The compositions are spare, with visual incident reduced to essentials. An atmosphere of contemplative silence suffuses the gallery, nudging the mind out of clock-time into a richer temporal dimension. With smooth, skin-like surfaces (the artist covers her canvases with mulberry paper to eliminate the weave) and a muted palette achieved through layers of deeply chromatic paint, the paintings exude sensuousness. While the works alternate tonally between light and dark, all are formally linked by the persistence of strong verticals and horizontals. But this is no rigid geometry; in each painting, the viewer is placed at a slightly oblique angle relative to the subject, subtly skewing the orthogonals. The effect is powerful; it heightens the evocation of lived experience (moving bodies and shifting angles being the hallmarks of embodied perception) and draws us into the mysterious space of the paintings. Gazing into the luminous, eye-like portals and across the rippling fields of cloth we know have enveloped a human body, we feel we are in the presence of an uncannily familiar stranger.
While the absent body is a persistent metonymic presence, metaphors for psychic interiority prevail. Nowhere is this more resonant than in the show’s most abstract pieces: the bedscapes. Hanging side by side along one expansive wall, Landfall and The Sea is All Around Us (both 2016) could be mistaken, from a distance, for the ethereal Minimalist compositions of Agnes Martin. But up close they’re nothing of the kind. From here, the alternating grey and white bands suggestive of Martin become the stripes of a bedsheet diminishing at different perspectival angles. The duality is rich. While conjuring the loaded psychology of the bed—locus of erotic intimacy, portal to our dream worlds, fraught site of our sleepless nights—the paintings also gesture toward transcendence with their invocation of vast, horizonless spaces. But with the implicit appeal to fleshly existence, this is no otherworldly transcendence. Rather, these paintings turn us toward the vastness within: the infinite realm of the imagination, the world not just of our dreams but of so much of our waking lives.
Transport beyond the here-and-now reaches an apex in the show’s single wall drawing. Looming just above eye level, Flipped (2016) is a towering, block-like structure drawn in a corner, the latter’s adjoining walls becoming those of the illusionistically rendered building. Here, four unadorned, paneless windows and a door drawn in silhouette radiate with the untouched white of the gallery’s walls. No human presence is felt here. Fleshless, platonic, this is not an individual house but a house as idea: a symbol, perhaps, of the human propensity for metaphysical transcendence—that most exalted spire in our psychic architecture. Moving around the drawing, the orthogonals shift dramatically, intensifying the sense of shimmering unreality.
As both material enclosure and the theater in which so much of our psychic lives unfolds, the house as a metaphor for our being is fertile territory. It is especially so for a painter: what is visual art if not itself a form of embodied consciousness? Both material and immaterial, sensual and rational, painting hovers in the liminal zone that is our own ontological situation. In it, we recognize ourselves. In Teale’s work, the poetry of the house merges with the rich, wordless poetry of painting, making this self-recognition doubly powerful: finite by virtue of the body that houses us, we are also trans-finite by virtue of a consciousness that can transcend it. With Teale’s work, we are both firmly rooted in our bodies and traversing the expanses of what Bachelard so beautifully calls our “intimate immensity,” emphatically at home in both places.
TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.