Celebrating inspirations such as Katrine Mansfield and Iris Tree, and with a foreword by poet Rena Rosenwasser, ‘Silent As Glass’ is a delicate display of femininity and form. A temperate collection of eight works, four portraits and four abstracts and still lives, Kaye Donachie’s sixth solo exhibition at Maureen Paley in Bethnal Green features contemplative blue and pink hues, downcast eyes and landscapes in which bodies blend with their surroundings. The references to Mansfield and Tree reflect a fascination with the modernist figure of the female outsider, the muse who is shrouded in a cloud of sexual fluidity, freedom and withering or inaccessible beauty. Reminiscent of fragility, distance and elusiveness, the title ‘Silent As Glass’ seems both critical and celebratory.
Over the course of her career, Donachie’s work has developed from group depictions of nymph-like youths in a variety of natural settings, including campfires and caves, and hinting at tribal undertones in warm earthy colours, to the caged, closely framed portraits of women in domestic surroundings, even if these are only suggested, we see today. Her colour schemes bring to mind the first, and last, colour photograph taken of the novelist Virginia Woolf, taken by Gisele Freund in 1939, shortly before the author’s death. The combination of subject, presentation and the titles of the works suggest a fascination with (if mostly white and western) female modernists’ experimentations with aesthetics of femininity.
In Woolf’s ‘Mark On The Wall’ from 1919, the author describes a women reclining while watching an unassuming mark on the wall. The unremarkable ‘object’ soon spurs the protagonist into conjuring an elaborate world of ideas, associations and possibilities, before getting abruptly disturbed by her husband entering the room. This short story is an example of what can be called the ‘feminine as method,’ championed by Woolf, and Mansfield, as well as Austen before them. By taking the small and unimportant everyday experience, often disregarded by male authors as ‘uninteresting,’ female writers were able to lay claim to an aesthetic technique that moved through gendered mediation (the female gaze) into a distinctly universal experience. Similarly, one should pay attention to the differences and relationship between the ‘feminine’ as subject and ‘femininity’ as method in Donachie’s work.
The most captivating piece in the show is ‘Untitled’ (2018), which is painted in a surprising reddish mauve with broad, black brushstrokes spreading over the gallery walls and drawing the gaze in to a portrait ‘Young Moon’ (2018). Almost an act of self-referentiality, the portrait is thus accompanied by two moons, one dark, one light, that traverse the mauve sky. Breaking away from the traditional ‘boxed’ frame of the other works, Donachie’s ‘pièce de résistance’ hints at witchcraft, subversion and the darkness of the universe, adding an undercurrent of dissidence to what could wrongfully be mistaken for ‘merely feminine’ work.