Start Again

Start Again, UHD Video, 1:57 mins, 2020

(Start Again)
Text by Charlotte Jansen, 2020
“I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows of unheard songs.
Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst -- burst with
forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking
fortune.”
 
-Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 1975

Kate Groobey’s energetic paintings (in watercolour and oil) generously come to life in the form of music and performance - as is the case in her latest series of works on paper, canvas and video, Start Again. In these new works, the female figure we see throttling a pen over and over is sometimes wresting control from her weapon of choice, sometimes overwhelmed by it; her clumsy but powerful hands clutching, trying to master (even, masturbate) the tool. There is something absurd and even obscene about this never-ending image - but as is often the case in Groobey's work, comedy and sensuality belie profound and personal intent.

 

Groobey, an Englishwoman, now lives in the rural south of France - the same terrain where the masters of Modernist painting once roamed. The palettes and psyches of Cezanne, Manet, Picasso, Matisse inhabit a fraught presence in Groobey’s work; questioning whether to quote from them, or quash them. Her return to the medium of oil painting - after some years - brings her inevitably back to the beginning, to those artists who first taught her how to look, how to paint. By addressing the male masters, Groobey stakes her authority over the desirous gaze, over the female figure, over the painterly act and gesture, apprehending the patriarchal structures inherent in painting, and in the way we look and are looked at. Groobey insists on the subjective nature of the artist's gaze by going beyond the painting, bringing her subject to life with costume, music and movement, introducing her own body in a kind of ritualistic and erotic worship. 

 

While Groobey’s aesthetic appreciation of the indomitable legacy of her male predecessors is evident in both her watercolour works and her oil canvases, Start Again aligns with the ideas of another French cultural figure, Hélène Cixous. As the godmother of a new radical kind of feminist creativity, in the 1970s Cixous urged the re-imagining of “woman for women”. A woman’s individual body and sexuality should be intertwined with her creativity, without shame or fear, in order to “become at will the taker and the initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process.” 

 

Groobey’s urgent, insurgent method in Start Again, her circuitous, repetitive, inconclusive motions are the perfect realization of Cixous’ demand; to introduce the undulating rhythm and force of female bodies into the language of the work. In the paintings, Groobey’s protagonist (to use the word ‘muse’ would debase the relationship between Groobey and her partner, Jina Khayyer) is squatting - a posture ideal for excreting or giving birth. It is a position that requires stamina and muscular strength. It is the embodiment of the feminine, of our cyclical nature, a symbol of renewal - emptying out, to start again.

 

Groobey made these works during lockdown, and their energy is palpably different from what she has produced before. Groobey has always created her own world, her paintings don't just hang, they live and breathe and dance, as in Pure Pleasure, the series Groobey made after travelling with Khayyer in LA. Start Again represents a more intense, psychosexual innerscape, less about what we can take from the world and more about what might be given or produced. The exaggerated, large hands, symbolic of the act of labour, craft and art, are prominent in the composition; sensual and tender, they also become threatening, recalcitrant, as the mood and light shifts, day to night.

 

More than a year ago, Groobey travelled in Japan, after an artist residency and exhibition there. She was struck by the many, varied representations of the popular Buddhist deity, Kannon, the divine mother and goddess of mercy. Kannon is said to have 33 forms; some depictions have 33 heads and the Senju Kannon is in possession of 1,000 arms, each equipped with a different tool to solve any mortal problem. Groobey's encounter with Kannon resurfaces here through the repetition of this single image, her own goddess profane and personal, a totem of love and passion; part of a precious, private world that the viewer cannot fully enter; one shared by lovers alone.  And yet slowly, we realise, Groobey’s woman is also a simulacrum, the Everywoman present in every woman.

 

Cixous might have called these repeated images the “stream of phantasms”, the rich imaginary of women. I think too of Anaïs Nin, who once wrote, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

-Charlotte Jansen is a writer and curator based in London. She is editor at large at Elephant

Start Again, installation at Sim Smith, 2020

Start Again, installation at Sim Smith, 2020

Start Again, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 2020

Start Again, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 2020

Start Again, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 2020

Start Again, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 2020

Start Again, installation at Sim Smith, 2020

Kate Groobey & Omar López-Chahoud in conversation

Omar López-Chahoud You work in a wide variety of media. Did you start out as a painter with the installations, films and sculpture coming later?

 

Kate Groobey Yes, I always painted, then in 2015 I started radically questioning my practice and began to experiment. That was the year I moved to Paris. Through my partner, Jina Khayyer, who is in all my work, I was introduced to French electronic music and the fashion world – I think the idea of costuming and composing came in part from that. Also, this was the first time I was without a studio as I had just left London to live in Paris and I hadn’t found a studio yet, so I was working at home. The way I paint with oils is really messy and stinks, so I wasn’t keen on doing oil painting at home - that’s when I started playing with video, sound and costume. I had been thinking about the idea of performance for a while and that situation, without the ability to paint, opened up the possibility to do something else – that was when I decided to delve further into the idea.

 

OLC A recurrent thing that you explore in your work, whether it is the videos or the paintings is that when you are constructing environments, the main player tends to be the human figure but I see that the work is increasingly becoming more personally connected to your own experience. Can you talk a little bit about that?

 

KG The human figure has always been of interest to me. When I was young, I was always interested in either doing something in psychology or painting – underlying everything is the interest in human psychology. Often my work is about coping mechanisms or emotions. I observe myself and the people around me. 2015 was a transformative year for me, where I questioned everything – my practice, my life choices. I was living outside of the UK for the first time, I was in love with a woman for the first time, so my work became more and more personal. Also, around that time my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I found that it was impossible for me to make any work that wasn’t addressing these big feelings I had. This was the first time that I made work that was entirely autobiographical. The first series where you can see all these massive changes is the Perfect Potatoes series – with characters like the “I Hate Everything Man”, which is my father. In the Perfect Potatoes series you see the moon, which for me is symbolic of Jina; you see a character shitting potatoes which represents, interchangeably, money and cancer; and you see the Statue of Liberty's crown, which represents female strength.

 

OLC In your recent work – Start Again – we see the same figure repeated, taking on certain characteristics, emphasising certain positions that the bodies are in, or certain parts of the body. Hands have been very important in all your work. I’m curious to know if you think of this figure as you. Do you think of the work as a kind of self-portraiture?

 

KG Hands are important for me. They’re one of the main ways we connect with the world. I think of the figure in Start Again as a double portrait. Jina and I both use our hands to make work and we use the same tool – the pen – Jina to write and me to draw. In a way all my portraits are self-portraits because I’m constructing the narrative.

 

OLC It’s interesting because you are talking about personal experience but I think that it transcends into something that a lot of people can relate to. The psychological space you talk about is very present in your work but it doesn’t come in a very literal representation of portraiture, it becomes something else. It’s not just that we are looking at a portrait, there is a lot of symbolism and we are looking at things that are quite open. I feel that with your work a lot of people can relate to it in many different ways. I’m intrigued about your process and how you navigate between performance, video and painting.

 

KG I always start with watercolours and drawing. The performance is the painting exploding out of the canvas. A bit like that 80’s Eurythmics song “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” – but instead of coming out of the kitchen, they’re coming out of the paintings.

 

OLC For the video work, you set up a situation that is almost like Cabaret Voltaire, I can’t help but think of those 1920’s early forms of performance where things were really done using very basic techniques but were very effective visually. I see that simplicity in your work but it becomes a very complex process. I love the fact that it feels a bit like theatre. How are you approaching that in your work, is it just in your studio or do you work with an audience sometimes? You’re performing for the camera?

 

KG They probably feel like theatre because my first film series was made for the theatre. I was working on my first films in Paris, in our apartment, in 2015. That year I showed my paper works in Paris at Ofr. and Coralie Gauthier, the curator of Silencio, David Lynch’s club, saw and liked my work. I showed her my films and she invited me to show them in the Silencio cinema and afterwards perform live. At that time each of my films were only a few seconds long – I had to figure out how to turn them into a 15-minute-long live performance. So, I made the whole first series of films for the theatre stage. Last year I did my first live performance in a gallery space, at RIBOT Gallery, for my first solo show in Milan.

This year I actually had 5 live performances scheduled but obviously they have all been cancelled! [due to the COVID-19 pandemic].

 

OLC I love your work; the way that you use paint, how you work with the figure and the undertones of your work are very complex and that is how I really connect to it. A lot of things come into the work that I think make it really strong - gender and social issues for example. Can you talk a bit about what else feeds into the work, alongside the personal things we already discussed and perhaps which artists you are looking at? There is a long history of performance artists that have dealt with similar issues around sexuality and gender and I’m interested to know if you look at any of those?

 

KG I never really looked at female performance artists. That’s maybe because of the education I had – I grew up in South Yorkshire in rural Sheffield and my early art education didn’t really factor in any of that, but it did introduce me to the pleasures of making. Or maybe it’s because I was always a tomboy and wanted to align myself with art-boys rather than girls. But that has been changing over the last five years and I’ve started looking at female performance artists like Rebecca Horn, Yayoi Kusama, the Neo-Naturists.

 

OLC There are a lot of artists linked with the South of France where you live now and I wonder if you could talk a little about how any of them may have influenced you in terms of colour and light?

KG The artists that started me on my painting journey were the likes of Matisse and Picasso. Moving to the South of France they became closer, they were all here at some point because of the light which attracted painters in particular. Being here has made them more present in my mind, but not because of colour and light – I’ve been thinking about their male- ness versus my female-ness. I think about whether I should really be quoting them or not? It’s become problematic in my work and I’ve started to address it more and more openly as it’s been playing on my mind.

OLC Tell me the thoughts behind START AGAIN.

 

KG I started this new series at the beginning of 2020 and it was supposed to be a continuation of my last show Assholes of Ambition but when I was in the studio drawing and trying to develop things my thought process was hijacked by Covid. It is pretty much a one image show of a figure crouching and holding a pen. A little bit like a record player that gets stuck – I got stuck on this one image. It’s not a way that I have worked before but it felt right, as we were all stuck in lockdown. I was compelled to follow that feeling of being locked in a room with a single idea bouncing off the walls. It became an intense meditation on the idea of starting again. Each day, again and again. You see the character locked in union with her pen as the sun rises over and over – only the light changes, and the colours shift in an endless but hope-filled cycle.

 

OLC Is it all going to be paintings or are you including watercolours or film? KG There’s a big grid of watercolours and a single film which plays on

repeat.

OLC So the watercolours go hand in hand with the larger paintings, do you make them simultaneously?

 

KG No, all the watercolours are done first before I move on to either making larger paintings or films.

 

OLC The watercolours are very beautiful as works in their own right, but I suppose the immediacy of the material is helpful as an idea is forming, do you see them as a warmup?

 

KG They’re not really a warmup, they map out and transmit my ideas into the material world. They’re a way of unravelling thoughts and emotions. They are how I build my series. Later the narrative develops further through the performance, that’s where the story unfolds.

 

OLC The very nature of working with watercolours means that you have to work very quickly with transparent paint, that must allow for discovery in terms of imagery. Your work has this sort of freshness. When I look at your work, paintings or videos, I feel that the work has been made before my eyes which is something very special, to have that sort of connection to a piece. Now we’ve discussed the way that you approach making your work it makes complete sense that the watercolours are such an integral part of your work.

 

KG Also, it allows for an intuitive entry into building things because you can be so fast and things can just spill out. Almost like that Surrealist idea of things just unravelling.

 

OLC It’s interesting that you mention a Surrealist idea. That’s what I was getting at earlier when I was talking about the 1920’s, like Cabaret Voltaire. I feel a Surrealist component in your work that surprises you in many
ways and that immediacy and ‘weirdness’ – I mean that term as a complement! It is surprising how when you see all these paintings together they all seem to convey the same kind of emotions but they are all so different and they all have a different punch. I’m also very interested in your use of colours. I’m sure your use of colour must have been affected by living in the South of France with such incredible light.

 

KG Materiality is definitely linked to place. I feel the surfaces of my oil paintings have soaked up the spirit of Cezanne’s mountain, Saint Victoire – which is a large chalk mountain I see every day on my morning run. My paintings have something of that chalky feel and they look as though they have been baked in the heat. And, yes, there is a crazy bleach white light here that’s like nowhere else I’ve been. Colours look ultra-luminous here, it’s really exciting, beautiful – one of the reasons I wanted to live here.

 

OLC I can’t help but think of you as a sculptor as well. Because of the way you paint, it feels like you are using paint in a way that a sculptor renders three dimensionally. Is that something you’re aware of or thinking about?

 

KG That’s interesting that you say that. My first interest in looking at art was sculpture - that’s what drew me in. But when it came to making things myself, I was far more interested in painting, putting colours on a page was so exhilarating to me – that was what I had to do.

This conversation was held remotely on September 4th 2020, Omar was in Miami and Kate in the South of France.

 

Omar López-Chahoud has been the Artistic Director and Curator of UNTITLED. since its founding in 2012. As an independent curator, López- Chahoud has curated and co-curated numerous exhibitions in the United States and internationally. Most recently, he curated the Nicaraguan Biennial in March 2014. López-Chahoud has participated in curatorial panel discussions at Artists' Space, Art in General, MoMA PS1, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. López-Chahoud earned MFAs from Yale University School of Art, and the Royal Academy of Art in London.

Start Again installation at Sim Smith, UHD video, 2020

Start Again film lyrics

Start again

Or you’ll go insane

Do we build on something unsound

Or raze it to the fucking ground?

The world is in a lockdown 

You’d better go and knuckle down

Get started on your next verse

Before you need to see a nurse

There is no medicine in sight

It’s killed by ultraviolet light

Start again

Or you’ll go insane

Are you ready for my pencil?

Not sticking to a stencil

Start again, in a free state

Start again, it’s gonna mutate

Think it’s in my nasal cavity 

The virus is taking over my rhapsody    

Started on my next act

Before it reaches my respiratory tract

Start again

Before you get the pathogen

Get started with your pencil 

Before the r-rate’s exponential

We are in a pandemic

It’s real it’s not just academic

Time for you to begin

Don’t just take it on the chin

Start again but is the virus

Doing us like tyrannosaurus?

Lyrics to Start Again, written and performed by Kate Groobey

Start Again, installation at Sim Smith, UHD video, 2020

“I continue to think how my work is always hijacked by the main events in my life and that’s why this series is so bound up with the lockdown, with the immobility of lockdown, physical and psychological, with the idea of being locked in a room, with a pen and a single, persistent, idea that bounces off the walls and repeats.” 

-Kate Groobey, 2020

 

‘Start Again’ is a body of work made with the intensity and multidisciplinary approach that Groobey has become known for. Continuing to explore the androcentric cannon of painting from a feminist, queer perspective, the exhibition features vibrant gestural paintings, performance, and video, where Groobey brings to life the two-dimensional world of her paintings by dressing up as her central character. The video for the exhibition features Groobey wearing a painted costume, and using handmade props, moving to a choreographed routine and self-composed music in front of a painted paper backdrop.

 

Oil paintings, watercolour works and video centre upon one character, a woman (Jina Khayyer, Groobey’s partner and muse) squatting in a field during sunrise and sunset, times of day that naturally symbolise endings and beginnings. Squatting is a primal position, indicating a body of strength and stability. She holds a giant pen in her oversized hands which have grown bigger to help her start to work again. This is her new start, her survival strategy, a way for her to process loss and start again.

Groobey’s work has always centered around personal experiences, with one body of work leading onto the next. ‘Start Again’ was worked on through the pandemic but was heavily influenced by her previous body of work, ‘Assholes of Ambition’, which started in Japan in 2018. The trip sparked a meditative approach to her process. Visits to temples and Buddhist statues brought about motifs that became like mantras in this new series; the symbol of the giant pen inspired by a visit to the temple of Sanjusangendo in Kyoto and the hands that clasp around it reminiscent of the hand gestures of a Buddhist statue. 

 

Groobey references more than imagery alone as inspiration for this show and cites Japanese art historical references from On Kawara to Zen Buddist painters and Ensō drawing as influencers. Her committed making of the work in lock down became a way of surviving or overcoming the day, an almost spiritual practice. As part of this disciplined-creative process, works were completed on the day they began, with swift strokes marking each painting with small differences from the others, repetitively confronting and reacting to our rapidly changing world events. These are works of economy, of stillness and repetition but also works of power and hope.

 

‘Start Again’ is a meditation on our place in the world, a reflection of the character and her creator in a brief but continuous moment in time. In the days devoted to the making of these works we can see the possibility of the future and the opportunity to start again. Groobey offers us strength and enlightenment, windows of promise and a clear path where we can start to question and believe.

These are works of economy, of stillness and repetition but also works of power and hope. ‘Start Again’ is a meditation on our place in the world, a reflection of the character and her creator in a brief but continuous moment in time. In the days devoted to the making of these works we can see the possibility of the future and the opportunity to start again. Groobey offers us strength and enlightenment, windows of promise and a clear path where we can start to question and believe.

-Sim Smith, 2020

Start Again, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, 2020

Start Again, installation at Sim Smith, 2020

With special thanks to

SIM SMITH

 © 2019 Kate Groobey

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