BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Reviews | 23 APR 18
Featured in
Issue 196

Kaye Donachie’s Portraits of Modern Heroines

In a two-part exhibition at Maureen Paley, London and Morena di Luna, Hove, Donachie's portraits free female beauty and desire from the male gaze

BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Reviews | 23 APR 18

Leaning against a pillar at Maureen Paley and gazing at the titular portrait of Kaye Donachie's exhibition 'Silent As Glass' (all works 2018), I realise I'm crushing. Hard. The cause of my condition is a young woman painted in oils on linen. Her skin is the colour of pale rose, her neck bathed in shadows of deepwater blue. Her lips, like lips kissed for too long, look bruised around the edges.

'Silent as Glass' is the first installment of a two-part exhibition by the British painter, her first solo show in the UK since 2013. Donachie's portraits are influenced by modern heroines, real and fictional. The poet and bon vivant Iris Tree is named as inspiration - the painting Sighs of Amber is based upon a photograph of Tree taken by Man Ray in 1920 - as is the writer Katherine Mansfield. The figures who inform them may be associated with the avant-garde, but the fantasy in which they're couched is closer to the slender, dewy-eyed femininity beloved of pre-Raphaelites. Imagine John William Waterhouse's nymphs clothed and dried, and Hylas banished, and you're halfway there.

Kaye Donachie, The eclipse that settled, 2018, oil on linen, 56 x 41 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Maureen Paley, London

The emotional pull of Donachie's portraits is largely the effect of her brushwork, which she executes in the manner of the pining lover, returning to a subject's features as if unable to let them alone. A palette of sundowns and midnights adds to the mood of yearning. Not all of the work on show is straight-up portraiture: Young Moon is hung against a purple and black digital collage. The loose, abstract pattern looks like something you might find in the sketchbooks of Eileen Grey: an ébauche of a rug or screen for a high-modern interior. In Delirious Verses and We Together - two still-lives hung on a wall painted navy - female silhouettes merge with bouquets of flowers.

The second installment of the exhibition, 'Like This. Before. Like Waves', at Morena di Luna in Hove, takes its title from Ann Quin's novel, Three (1966). Quin committed suicide a mile from the site of Morena di Luna in 1973, drowning herself off the end of Brighton's Palace Pier. Three is set in the aftermath of the death of a young woman named 'S' who had taken up residence with a married couple. Like Donachie's fantastical dead, 'S' becomes an intoxicating presence - an apparition fabricated from hazy memories, diary fragments and the longings of the living.

Kaye Donachie, 'Silent As Glass', 2018, installation view, Maureen Paley, London. Courtesy: © the artist and Maureen Paley, London

There are moments in this show when death threatens to reclaim its citizens. In The Eclipse That Settled, the woman's eyes, nose and mouth are painted with dark strokes. They stand out against her bloodless complexion and suggest the cavities of the skull. There are moments, too, when I feel the work's spell temporarily weaken. The romance of Light Steals, an elegant, art deco-inflected painting of a hand and orb, for instance, is too familiar to incite my ardour.

The spell strengthens as I search the face of the dark-haired girl with her eyes closed in the The Truth That Hangs. As I follow the buttercup yellow that illuminates her eyelids and makes slim, bright triangles down her cheeks, I realize that none of Donachie's women meet the eye. There is no Olympia to check me for staring, nor does the usual shadow of the painter's 'male gaze' distract from the works' rare beauty. At the sight of Our Tears for Smiles I'm captivated by a woman with cropped black hair, painted like a dauphin in regal shadows of old burgundy and dark marine. Her lashes and nose have been petted with brushstrokes. Donachie's portraits make a lover of the viewer. On parting, I immediately wish to return.

Kaye Donachie, 'Like This. Before. Like Waves' runs at Morena di Luna, Hove, UK until 17 June.

Main image: Kaye Donachie, I that know you, 2018, (detail), oil on linen, 61 × 46 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London, UK. She is an editor at The White Review. Her book Double-Tracking was published by Carcanet Press in October 2019.