Since her graduation from London’s Royal College of Art in 2010, Kate Groobey has enjoyed a rising profile on the scene, kick-started by having pieces from her degree show snapped up, and subsequently exhibited, by Charles Saatchi. I recently went to visit Groobey in her Dalston studio.
Her degree show was a series of weird, predominantly female, forms painted in rich greens and blues. “Predominantly female” is a term used advisedly, for the bodies are so abstract as to be ambiguous in gender, so the viewer is never quite certain how to sex them; Groobey herself confesses that she thinks of one figure, with breasts clearly visible, as male.
“Groobey paints her canvases on the floor, the physicality of her own form stretching over painted bodies themselves elongated beyond natural proportions.”
Kate Groobey, The Cutting Mat, 2010. Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Groobey Dismembers, Then Reassembles
By Madeline K. Jones
Her degree show was a series of weird, predominantly female, forms painted in rich greens and blues. “Predominantly female” is a term used advisedly, for the bodies are so abstract as to be ambiguous in gender, so the viewer is never quite certain how to sex them; Groobey herself confesses that she thinks of one figure, with breasts clearly visible, as male. Their taut frames and athletic poses recall childhood gymnastics lessons, reimagined in a dreamlike woodland environment—and the activity of the bodies is perhaps what makes their gender so difficult to determine. The abstraction of the forms recall Matisse’s languid female nudes, but Groobey’s bodies are taut and active, suggesting a different vision of the woman’s form from that exhibited throughout much of the history of art.
Groobey generally paints on large canvases—as big as she can manage “without not being able to reach the middle bits.” The size of the canvas is important to her: she paints them on the floor, the physicality of her own form stretching over painted bodies themselves elongated beyond natural proportions.
The figures, no matter how distorted or in how dreamlike a landscape they are set, remain to her first of all solid objects. Even her paint is layered and textured—as if the image cannot rest as only an image, creating a tension between materiality and image.
And the landscapes which the bodies inhabit seem as important as the bodies themselves; trees loom down, clouds on the horizon seem to be puffed out (or sucked in) by the obscene forms. Grids in the background of the degree collection make the bodies seem like anatomical examples, their muscles taut to demonstrate what a muscle is. Groobey talks about childhood visits to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park—all weird forms looming out of the rolling fields—and shows me a book of Paul Nash’s pictures, cones in the fields of the South of England.
Groobey describes her process of composition. She sketches figures, from pictures in magazines or online, then paints a watercolor, or a group of watercolors, and then photocopies them, or just cuts them up; the act of cutting up is the crucial part of the process. The intact bodies of the sketches are dismembered and reassembled, mixed and match, until Groobey finds an image she is satisfied to sketch—and even this composite might find itself chopped up once again.
The process recalls a history of women reduced to catalogs of their body parts, women cut up on the cosmetic surgeon’s table, or cutting themselves in desperation. But although sexuality is an element in the pictures, it’s not quite right to say that they are sexualized; when I point out that one depicts a woman with her legs spread, Groobey laughs, and says that in a “very British” way, she doesn’t think about them “like that.”
The cutting is a way of introducing an element of chance into the creative process. Groobey is refreshingly non-didactic about her work, even to the point of reticence about being quoted directly, through an anxiety about giving the viewer too many preconceptions, of programming verbally what is meant to be experienced visually. I wonder if this preoccupation with the artist’s control, or lack of it, is behind her current collection, pieces from which were featured in the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ annual “Young Contemporaries” show at the start of this year.
This collection (Groobey thinks of her work as falling into discrete collections) turns from female to male sexuality, and these masculine figures are still more abstract than those of the earlier collection.
Whereas Groobey’s women were dynamic and active, this collection explores a side of masculinity that has often been difficult to express: in an art history where the female form has typically been seen as the dirty, messy, soft, disintegrating body, and masculinity as hardness and integrity, the pieces are a striking departure from this tired polarity, and all the flaccid figures with their insides spilling out, phallus-like figures who themselves have phalluses, reminds us that the penis, for all that it is the totemic locus of male (conscious, reasoning, strong) power, is also that part of the body which escapes conscious control (suggested by the title, Massless Rod).
In Bob’s Trajectory, a man sits on a throne with a phallus protruding—and his guts spilling out. In Omega’s Double a cartoonish, phallus-animal gobbles up, or spews out, a mass as formless as itself. The painting points to the limitations of a vision of male sexuality as a hard, thrusting thing; it depicts the male sexual experience as at once more vulnerable and more complex than this.
And there are just as many guts in the pictures as penises. In The Idle, two legs support two thick, intestine-like tubes, suggesting a head and leaking phallus, as if along with all other boundaries of the sexual it were decrying that separating it from the alimentary.
The ambiguity of the direction of the motion in Omega’s Double is typical in Groobey’s pictures. It is always unclear whether the figures are cut up from without or disintegrating from within, consuming or being consumed.