Russell Keziere

Catherine MacTavish
Kyles Gallery, Victoria, September 9 - October 3

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.
[ 861 words ]

Catherine MacTavish is, as one of her own titles has it, Maintaining the Borderline. In this work, subtitled Bathers #1, tiny little bathers dressed in swimsuits and identifiable as women, men and children, propel themselves through the oils toward the perimeter of the painting, heading for the borderline between art and non-art. The minute figurines are humanoid and their activity expresses urgency and fear; the microcosm is blithely conditioned, the macrocosm reveals an inexorable and horrid fate. They are going off the edge and into the non-art world.

The metaphor inherent in this picture allows for an associative interpretation, in fact it is prone to such an interpretation. The whole of the Bathers Series has this weakness. In her other paintings MacTavish deals with the problems in a much more integral manner and can weave a more intricate fabric than the image of a bird's-eye view of a community swimming pool into which someone has dropped a shark. More to the point are those paintings that examine the borderline between that which is a self-sufficient work and that which employs style but references so totally to a concept beyond the act of painting that it is made incomplete. MacTavish's analysis is of the ontology of painting, and it finds its expression in form.

In Night Mountains (Night Visions #1) the large canvas is covered with expressionistic and classic drip painting. But there is a certain amount of anxiety over the 'abstractness' of the result. The random lines of paint, strings and blobs are not the constitutive form of this painting. They are gone over and almost negated by a highly meditative and conscious application of tiny spherical hickeys, small circles and crosses. From a distance these little focal points provide scattered apertures, opening, as it were, into a different order of intentionality. The highly deliberate eddies in the paint are seemingly at odds with the expressionistic calligraphy which makes up the ground.

It is a coincidence of opposites. Similarly the edges of Spiders in the Sky Like Diamonds (Prayer Rug #1) or Starless Nights (Night Vision #3) continues the analysis. The canvas is left unstretched, grommets provide the necessary support, although the floor is probably a preferred location for them, and the threads are braided into hundreds of tiny cilia. The process of making them is obviously painstaking and ritualistic; like the preparations involved in making a magic circle, the braiding activity seems both a defence against an insurgence that might lessen the status of the object as art, and a means of making the object efficacious.

Within this sacred perimeter the painter gives us a complex of interconnecting webs, radiating and converging, linking the composite areas of the canvas in a myriad of lines. At a distance they look random and natural; a closer inspection contradicts this perception and tells of meticulous attention. There are two focal lengths, and both are relevant. The microcosm consists of incomprehensible detail and a sense of order and the macrocosm is made up of chaos. The total reading of the painting leaves you with an equation that is apparently contradictory: order is chaos and chaos is order.

The frayed edges give MacTavish her most effectively defined paintings. The stretched canvasses within frames seem less complete somehow, like Blurry Stars (Night Vision #4) in which the frayed edges are actually reproduced in two dimensions and extend inward along the border. The painting turns in on itself rather than emanating; the force is centripetal rather than centrifugal.

In the three paintings Wasp Vision #1, 2 and 3 the border repeats itself in the form of a window seen from the inside of a dark room. In the centre of the painting we find a flat blue, devoid of the darkly hued webs that surround it. The visual experience induced by the webs is one of maintaining the multiplicity of focal points. The eye cannot rest except when it reaches the centre, the unimpeded blue. The wasp has a similar experience, we are told, in that it is instinctively attracted to blue: i.e., sky, and can thereby be triggered into pursuing the path of safety. (In a way, the flight of the wasp to safety, and of our eyes to the respite of blue in the centres of these paintings, is analogous to the metaphor of the bathers avoiding danger and fleeing to the edge.)

The paintings are representative of an attempt to confront schizophrenia with the mysticism of physics. There is madness in them, particularly in the meticulous detail, but it is a madness that is simultaneously a methodological analysis of the act of painting. The coincidence of contrary visual experiences, the tension between centre and edge, the convergence of two antithetical focal lengths, and their corresponding associations, bring the edges of schizophrenia together by resting in the middle.


Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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