Kaye Donachie, ‘Silent as Glass’: Exhibition Review



Written Winter 2018.
Maureen Paley
Bethnal Green, London


Courtesy of Maureen Paley ©

Revisiting or reinterpreting that which already exists as art, requires an audacity, a bravery or self-belief that additional justice can be done to that which already exists. Within her sixth exhibition at Bethnal Green’s inconspicuous gem, the Maureen Paley, Scottish artist Kaye Donachie wastes no time in revealing such an ambition by way of a Ren Rosenwasser excerpt that although cryptic at face value, sets the scene of her approach to these seven paintings- “the slides she shows, of other women who have painted other faces, the stories their stories she tells as if it were, her story her own work...”. These reimagined melancholic female portraits of models, authors and other stars from the past, alongside isolated studies of emotive objects spark something within the eyes of viewers, that make the collection of paintings almost impossible to not be seen as a nostalgic, poignant, emotional catharsis.

Silent as Glass as a series speaks sadness. It speaks claustrophobia, it speaks isolation, it speaks longing for something that has either been taken away, or that was never really there. Throughout, the colour blue dominates each painting, whether light and watery, or dark and heavy. The title alone is heavy with discord, demanding and communicating delicacy. These women and accompanying studies of miscellaneous figures and objects, spanning across seven oil-painted linen canvas’ in total, traverse the known, the unknown, the surreal and the banal in an altogether brooding panorama. Loneliness of Night for example, shows the form of two hands merging into the silhouette of a solitary shadowy figure, within the day-break visual contrast of the hands themselves. Delirious Verses, a painting paired alongside We Together: a simplistic floral scene created with the unshakeable air of a child-like brevity and haphazardness. These non-human breaks within the flow of images allow for a creativity, a perspective that the fixed approach of a portrait does not. They help annotate the inner workings of her mind; they help break down an emotional narrative that goes beyond the coherent, the static and the familiar.

It is however, the females here that punctuate the series. They appear, one by one, poised in rumination, examined during moments of intense contemplation. They gaze away from the artist; they give themselves to the audience as they are and reveal both intimate and unnerving. Yet, they are strangers- images of writers, artists and muses of bygone days. Yet, they are echoes from the past, figures possibly admired by the artist, now reverberating now as imagined friends, loved ones or familiar strangers. They have been reinvented, for reasons that ultimately aren’t wholly clear, and yet don’t seem to wholly matter. And yet, there is an unease; an unease at the focus of these women as figures to be observed at their most vulnerable. An unease with the emotional intensity of their titling. An unease with the overall air of silence, within the series as a whole.

Silent as Glass as a collective exhibition, like several of it’s paintings, seems bound or rather moulded by the brevity of time. Upon realising that all seven paintings were created in 2018, with the exhibit itself opening in the seventh week of the year so far, the speed, dedication and fixation that the resulting paintings required seems impressive to say the least. With several of the paintings being titled personally and diaristically (i.e. We together or, I that you know) it is hard not to invest in, or be drawn into the series emotionally as we shape and re-shape the humans and objects. 

Whether the floor-fixated figure in Young Moon, the dreamy eyed one of I that you know, the poised profile of Silent as Glass or the distant gaze in Sighs of Amber, the arm of the artist is able to form subjects consistently, but not without a dash of unconvention. True to her style, her brush strokes are confident, thick and at times disjointed, yet like some of her earlier works there appears an avoidance of completion in her paintings; a curious visual contrast between the layering, the attention and compulsion for perfection in some areas of her painting with the absence of detail in others. Young Moon for example, depicts the profile of a young woman within a tirade of heavy blue brushstrokes across teals and ultramarines that make no distinction between the boundary of her clothes and the shadows of her background. Linking with the eponymous painting Silent as Glass, there is an avoidance of completing the detailing of the women's ears in either paintings; they remain incomplete sentences within visual paragraphs, that either leave viewers wanting more or imply the notion that these famed figures were painted from memory? Either seem credibly debatable. Still, a dash of the grotesque manages to creep its way into several paintings. The eyes of the subjects in I that you know and Sighs of Amber seem sunken, eerie as her delicate style takes on a quasi-deathly look, blurry without definition like beautiful drifting ghosts.

Some curational choices were worth mentioning, namely that of pairing We Together and Delirious Verses, exhibiting Young Moon over an untitled garish wall mural by the artist and leaving an uneven amount of space between Sighs of Amber and Loneliness of Night, which do seem deliberate enough to warrant some specific purpose but inconsistent enough to really make one ponder the real motives behind them. Yet, with a little perspective perhaps it is each wall of the gallery that has been arranged to represent three respective phases of the artists’ own personal journey, with each of these minute tunings, modifications and arrangements reflecting every, otherwise ignored aspect of her psyche.


Courtesy of Maureen Paley ©

Still, Silent as Glass gives more than it takes emotionally. Sometimes it feels as though the paintings, regardless of their respective complexities and individuality, were created within one long, deep breath of creatvity and if so, this exhalation of output, for all that it reveals and celebrates, should not be taken for granted.