Text by Thomas W. Kuhn
The message is clear: Enjoy! A message that is used not only by the omnipresent caffeinated soft drink from Atlanta to boost consumption, but also by a restaurant whose sumptuous crystal chandeliers embody the promise of pure unadulterated luxury. And the world, the world of consumption and leisure time, is full of promises. Pure cultural pleasure – that is what the Louvre offers, the feeling of unlimited freedom – a highway in the U.S. (“Cheatin’ Hearts”, 2011), and tolerant cosmopolitanism – the streets of Amsterdam (“The Street (The Crash)”, 2008). And these are the stages on which the artist’s protagonists can enact their own lives as a theatre play, heroes of leisure who have enough self-confidence and are not afraid to choose the right mix of attire and pose from the repertoire of stereotypes: in case of doubt also in the form of the sterile perfection of “Barbie and Ken in Florence” (1998).
Kate Waters knows these places and the people associated with them thanks to her own biography, which took her from Canada via London and Brussels to Düsseldorf, complemented by numerous trips to different European countries. She uses her camera to record scenes from everyday life almost incidentally, scenes that capture moods and constellations totally without drama. The tongue-in-cheek titles of her pictures help us to understand ambiguous scenes and people who are staging themselves. Thus in her picture “Hero” (2009), Kate Waters shows two heroes for the price of one. One hero is Leonidas, king of Sparta, testimony to the unwavering courage of the Greeks in the futile battle against the superiority of the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae. The other hero is a visitor to the Louvre who poses in front of the picture by Jacques-Louis David and has his picture taken by his female companion. What a man!
Locations, too, appear in an ironic transfiguration; for example, when a Spanish restaurant turns into an apparition from the mystical dreamland “Xanadu” (2010) against the backdrop of a sugary evening sky. In this way Kate Waters does not only unveil archetypes in our present-day leisure culture. For her, irony makes a lot of things bearable, which strictly speaking are unbearable.
Even before Kate Waters started to model her paintings on photos that she had taken herself, she already took an ironic look at cultural clichés on the verge of kitsch during the 1990’s. Copied picture postcards depict the Loreley, the no. 1 pin-up girl of romantic eroticism, on a wine jug or cheerfully posing English soldiers in a model – the cute offshoots of martial art.
But there are two other reasons that make it worthwhile to take a look back at the 1990’s. Because it is here that the artist’s great interest in the representation of light already becomes obvious. It was the beginning of her dynamic contrasts of light and dark, their dramatic reflection on shining surfaces, and finally the direct representation of light sources – whether artificial or natural. These light effects are crucial to create ambiences that lead a life of their own as an abstract quality, beyond any narrative. In this context, Kate Waters talks about the phenomenon of simultaneity – the concomitance of several, apparently contradictory perceptions.
This simultaneity is also inherent in the mediality of her oil and ink paintings themselves, ever since she started to pick up the distinctive photographic properties of her models in her paintings, too. What strikes us in numerous pictures by Kate Waters, e.g. in “Butterwings” (2009) is the selective use of soft focus, once promoted by pictorialism as a specific genre of fine art photography. Blurring does not only confer a painterly note to photography, which sounds like a contradiction in itself, it also keeps the visual appearance in limbo.
This is not only limited to the interplay between the perception of a depicted object and the painting, but also to the depicted object itself, like for example with the famous 19th century picture puzzle that, at first look, depicts a young woman who all of a sudden seems to look pretty old, when looking at the picture for a longer time, and vice versa. Wife and mother-in-law at the same time – a daring mixture! The soft focus creates an openness, an opportunity to see things from a different perspective whenever taking a fresh look at the picture. This changing perception of a painting is accompanied by the movement of people and vehicles in the pictures. Without any drama and within a few moments, this movement may lead to completely new constellations: the head of a woman with prying eyes turned sideways in “Ghostbusters” (2005) turns and faces the viewer and in a moment it will turn back to the direction in which she is heading; the two “Untouchables” (2010) are about to enter an elegant hotel lit up at night to keep lonely guests company, or the concierge might show them the door in the end. And maybe, after all, the two ladies in their provocative dresses are not what we believe them to be.
Also the second aspect of her mid 1990’s paintings requires attention, in particular in order to understand her museum pictures as the outcome of a development in its own right. In pictures like “Murder She Wrote” (1996), Kate Waters assembles several disparate motifs into one picture. On the one hand, the pictures of this series remind us of the quodlibets in 17th century Dutch paintings, pin boards featuring letters, objects and pictures that caused a sensation as trompe l’oeil works because of the powerful optical illusion they created. On the other hand, they resemble photo montages in scrapbooks, which appeared in the Anglo-American countries during the 19th century, decorated with documents and notes to preserve personal memories. Coming from different sources, pictures that are formally different converge and develop a new, associative narrative.
This is exactly what happens, although in a different way, in the museum pictures, which are the realistic counterpart of the photo montages. Thus, for example, the painting “The Day the World Stood Still” (2009) shows a section of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ painting “Grand Odalisque”, the oriental Venus who lures the (male) viewer into the exotic half darkness of her boudoir. In front of this, you have the exhibition hall of the Louvre lit up to profane daytime brightness. Light, space and colour, the art itself, become the subject, when two times two realities converge: Ingres’ real painting in the real museum in Paris, the real photography of this space translated into a real, painted picture.
And one can continue along this path into the exhibition hall with Kate Waters’ pictures, with their own light and different people on a new stage. Unlike the dark soft drink and the fancy restaurant, she does not need the ostentatious ENJOY! If viewers open themselves up to the complexity of her pictures, all of which tell their own stories, despite all formal commonalities, then the pleasure probably will come almost automatically, in a zone somewhere between Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper – a very tangible mixture of a keen sense of observation and a splash of melancholy.