Graphic Studio Gallery is delighted to present “Moving Still”, a solo exhibition by studio member Kate Mac Donagh.
Moving Still commences on Saturday 26th June
The exhibition continues to 31th of July
Kate Mac Donagh
On the wall in front of my desk, there is a small composition by the Irish artist Kate Mac Donagh. It shows two ovals – one upright, one lying on its side. The upright oval resembles a grey face, while the white lateral oval is like rounded shoulders.
They are not connected, more like shapes floating free on a light grey background. The texture is wonderfully uncertain, allowing the parchment on which they are printed to come shining through with what looks like – veins, capillaries, arteries, smudges, freckles, imperfections.
This abstract image contains something deeply human, an expression of energy existing beyond the surface. It seems both static and full of motion, like a living presence.
It brings to life the viewer’s imagination. It allows me, as a novelist, to slip in behind all that restraint and find an expanding galaxy of thoughts and stored memory. Here I am, working in prose, translating into language what this image does so successfully in its silence. Those invisible stories found in places where no words have been used.
For me, there is an entire novel inside that image. It reminds me in some way of the work of Lydia Davies, the American writer of short powerful passages of prose that stop short each time and allow the reader to fill in the larger background. Each fragment becomes a movie to us. Like the story of a flight attendant buying a cup of coffee in Starbucks and being asked if she wants caramel drizzle or caramel syrup, that tiny glimpse of her day gives us a true portrait. We can fill in the family, the lovers, the heartbreak, the happiness.
There is something in those truncated observations that opens up enormous hidden biographies. We enter a dialogue with art, it speaks to us, lighting up our emotions with a bright torch, blinding us when it’s good. What strikes me about the work of Kate Mac Donagh is her ability to allow us to participate. We become co-artists, filling in the details.
I remember standing in front of a Rothko painting at MOMA and wondering how many people had seen this piece before me. As always, it seems to me that part of the painting is soaked up by the viewer, while at the same time, a deeply intimate place in the viewer’s imagination becomes transposed into the art. That Rothko painting must have soaked up a million hearts. It felt like being at a rock concert with all the previous visitors around me, all focused on those shifting bands of colour. The painting seemed to be unfinished. As if the artist is waiting for us to come and bring it to life.
Kate Mac Donagh grew up in Sligo where her parents ran a successful restaurant. Her father also took a great interest in theatre, directing many productions of Yeats plays around rural cities and towns in the West. She travelled with him in a Volkswagen van loaded with props. It was inevitable, perhaps, that she would begin her artistic career as a set designer for theatre, and then eventually go on to take a deep interest in Japanese art brought on by that formative influence coming through the Yeats Noh plays.
In a physical sense, her work has been influenced by the landscape of the west of Ireland. It brings to mind all that moisture in the climate, the bareheaded mountains, that noisy rushing of the Garavogue river through the town of Sligo, those layers of sphagnum moss pressed down over centuries into the memory of blanket bogs, all merging with the same slow centuries of human calmness and meditative power found in Japanese landscapes and architecture.
In her studio in south Dublin, surrounded by brushes and small disks used to smooth out the ink onto paper, Kate Mac Donagh explains to me how the subtle colours showing in the work come through from the back. Each composition takes on multiple layers and even then, the texture of the paper, which she sources in Japan in large rolls, comes through like underground life.
She has travelled extensively to Japan, taking up three lengthy residencies there which allowed her to build up strong relationships with other artists in her realm of work and to acquire that remarkably disciplined craft where the minimal form becomes the expression.
In a series of subtle, swaying images, her new exhibition shows that ancient mastery of materials which she has taken from Japanese traditions. It is as if there something inside the paper and the frugal amount of ink soaked up in the printing that make it fluid – ‘more cloth than paper’ as the artist herself would say. Each piece in this collection holds not only the colour and the texture of paper itself, but also the block used to print the ink onto the paper, leaving behind the growth design inside the wood.
It contains, what the artist calls the history of its own making, each surface drying in waves, evolving in patient layers of time. Shapes that produce powerful echoes like a steady beat going through the work. All those timeless places in the landscape where she comes from set alongside distant cultures in the far east.
One composition which was still in progress shows the night sky at a time of pandemic isolation when no flights were crossing the world. A deep, moonless black space, like visual silence. Only one star awake, as Yeats once said. It has since taken on three more levels of ink, as if the absence of traffic has filled the sky with further layers and layers of distance, an infinity of darkness. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the noise of the universe.
Author of The Pages (4th Estate)