Attention-seeking seahorses and other outer-suburban phenomena
An iMessage conversation between two artists, Kate McKay and Aaron Perkins, about ghost stories, monochrome, the sublime, the uncanny, Pokémon, suburbia, and fanciful art terms, conducted over the duration of McKay’s Outer Space residency.
Aaron Perkins: Do you have any ghost stories?
Kate McKay: I don’t! But when I was younger I used to worry that a ghost lived in our roof after dad made me watch The Exorcist. I would always run to my room to avoid the manhole opening outside my bedroom door, haha. What about you?
When I was a kid, my two sisters and I were in the car with mum and as we pulled into the driveway we all thought we saw a kid’s face in the window of the back shed. It was dark and rainy (of course) but we all went down to check but there was no-one/nothing there
Ages later we found out two things: first, that our home’s previous owner’s wife had died ‘mysteriously’, like, the story was she dropped a saucepan on her toe and died from complications or something; and, second, that all women in the house next door had died early
Omg, that’s awful
I know, right?! Our neighbour was an Irish couple who moved in and then this happened to them too. He was down the TAB one day and heard whispers/rumours/whatever from other punters about this story, like it was local knowledge that the place was haunted
Meanwhile my sisters saw creepy things… like a pale, moribund woman dressed in white standing in their doorway one night (they shared a bedroom)
And so we started putting together this story that the woman who’d lived in our house discovered her husband was having an affair with the lady next door, and killed her own children and herself, and then stayed on as a ‘woman in white’ (it’s a thing) to haunt all future neighbours
It all made perfect sense, haha
The reason I ask is that in some of your paintings there’s a kind of ‘presence’ within really everyday, normal settings
Haha, that is a good ghost story. I agree there is that sort of presence in my work — a psychological presence, perhaps. I think it stems from a certain anxiety about space that I’ve had throughout my life
Can you talk about that?
I mean the feeling you get when you walk through spaces at night and space becomes invisible; like when you walk down the street and it disappears into nothingness (if there is no street light). As a woman you’re aware of this, perhaps even more than men, because we’re taught that being in public spaces alone is unsafe
I’ve also had a lot of problems with anxiety growing up and I feel that this is triggered when I’m faced with open space. I wouldn’t say I’m outright agoraphobic but I do feel unsettled
(And sorry for my late reply! I had a huge day at work and then came home and watched too much Netflix…)
I see your use of monochrome in that way, as a way of disappearing things into nothingness, be that in day-lit and infinite or dark and indefinite landscapes. Is that anxiety, then, the psychological presence within your work or is it something else?
(What’ve you been watching on Netflix?)
I’d say the monochromatic colour and infinity definitely relate to the presence of anxiety, but I don’t want it to be too morbid. I’m also just really interested in catching the beauty in everyday moments, as cliché as that sounds
(I may have been watching Queer Eye…)
What’s the significance of darkness in your work?
It’s not really about darkness as such in my work — I’m not painting an absence of light, night scenes, shadows, etc. I’m more interested in our phenomenological experience of black as a colour
And, sorry to bang on about this, but I do think this is similar to your own monochrome works in that it offers a slower perceptual surface, a bit of visual quietude with less emphasis on specific details which colour would otherwise accentuate. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but, putting aside the very real anxiety you described, I think it also allows a kind of frisson or excitement to be felt from that presence in your paintings, because the monochrome inserts a psychological distance between the direct experience of what you’re painting and its representation
That’s really interesting that you talk about monochromatic painting as a visual quietude. I like that description and it makes sense looking at your practice and my previous work
But what you’re working on now at Outer Space seems less interested in ideas of the romantic sublime and maybe more to do with ‘beauty’ — how do you avoid cliché here?
(Oh, and I like that my paintings resemble the black squares on a crossword grid, haha)
I am worried that my painting at the moment could be understood more in relation to notions of ‘beauty’ than the sublime… but it’s about finding a way of conveying that in an everyday context (and in colour)
I haven’t quite found the right images (or colours) at the moment…. but it’s exciting to do something completely different and challenging
What are you looking for in images? There’s something uncanny and slightly disconcerting in what you’re working on — I’m thinking of that covered car you just posted to Insta
And sorry for the late response... I’ve got a show opening Thursday and have been installing it, running around crazily, etc.
That’s so exciting about your show! I completely understand… I’ll have to pop by on Thursday night for the opening — your work looks amazing and I can’t wait to see it in the flesh
Well, I don’t actually have any ‘painting’ paintings in the show… I’ve scribbled grammatically abstracted text over the gallery walls and am projecting black-and-white images over the top
That sounds really interesting. I’ll definitely swing by to see the show, if not tonight then during the week while it’s still up
But yeah, my interest at the moment is to find and imbue everyday spaces, objects with a sense of strangeness. So, yes, I think my work is dealing with the uncanny as it features things that are familiar yet unfamiliar; e.g the car is a very mundane object but becomes strange when disguised by the tarp. When I look at it I don’t just see a car but instead a mountain, a glacier, or the surface of a fish
The surface of a fish? Haha
It was just unexpected! The scale associated with the sublime and that we’ve been talking the sublime and infinite space and whatnot and
Shit! Didn’t mean to send that, haha
It was just unexpected! The scale associated with the sublime isn’t usually that on the surface of a fish…
Haha, yeah okay, it’s seeming less like a fish now!
So how are you using paint and painting to defamiliarise those scenes?
I’m finding at the moment a way to defamiliarise has been to zoom in on details — especially things you would only spend a glance looking at. I’ve been collecting images of things that are covered or reflected, parts of the body that are obstructed from view etc. so as to fragment the way we see ordinary things can create a sense of the uncanny
What artists and/or visual references are you looking at for this?
Sorry for my late reply! I’ve had a busy week with my holiday in Adelaide, work and now I’m sick… Also sorry for not making it to your show… life just got in the way
Painters like Edward Hopper, Johannes Vermeer, Louise Hearman and Andrew Browne; photographers like Bill Henson and William Eggleston; and as you saw in my public program (the screening of Orson Welles’ The Third Man) my influences also incorporate film noir
Oh, I like Andrew Browne’s work – those gnarled trees are seriously creepy. They remind me of A Nightmare Before Christmas (or Tim Burton, generally, I guess) and that the shadow-spider thing in the upside-down sky of Stranger Things
I was just searching to see if it had a name and came across this:
Haha that’s super creepy! And possibly photoshopped… Yeah, actually his gnarly trees do look like that creepy thing from Stranger Things!
Oh yeah, I knew that…
Haha I know you did
I’ve been sketching this morning ideas for how these images will work together… I think they work well in diptychs or triptychs
What’s the one front-right looking like an attention-seeking seahorse?
Haha its a plastic garden flamingo next to a dead lorikeet I found on the side of the road — both as dead as each other!
Sorry, that sounded weird!
Look, I believe you… but I can only see an attention-seeking seahorse
All I’m thinking of is the Pokémon seahorse, Horsea
(I’m currently playing Pokémon Go; don’t judge)
Oh really? I just started back up a couple weeks ago...
If you wanna be friends on it we can send gifts!
Definitely! My code’s 7753 5327 4881
Shit, you’re level 34! I’m only 18! I started about two weeks ago though…
I started two years ago... but abandoned it a year or so ago until the other week
I like how your buddy is a sloth
He’s dragged himself 20 kms alongside me so far
Haha that’s great
Anyway, in those sketches you’ve got the back of a person winged by a nude foot and a tarped car; there’s your own shadow zig-zagging up some steps and a distant silhouetted ‘other’ cut by a falling diagonal; other things I can’t make out (and somewhere a plastic garden flamingo next to a dead lorikeet). Individually they’re each quite common, everyday sights, but, fragmented and then re-set in dip- and triptych formats, an ambiguous and unsettling play between between presence and absence, between display and concealment starts to emerge
I like the idea that these images of the everyday contain these ulterior possibilities, but what is it that’s motivating you to present this sense of the uncanny? Is it a boredom with suburbia? A frustration with its promises? A frisson that Taco Bell can’t satisfy?
It’s about taking notice of what is already there and trying to see it differently. I find it a means of escapism from the mundanity of life trying to notice and zone in on everyday moments to find its poetry. Putting together disparate images of things is playful and I enjoy seeing new relationships emerge in this process
My life is pretty boring and I live in a pretty dull neighbourhood. But painting helps me to see these environments in a new light… I think I’m trying to play with a viewer’s perception of suburban spaces and also alleviate anxiety about my own existence
As a way of finding quietude rather than detachment in the everyday? Imbuing it with fantasy more than cynicism perhaps?
I think it is fantasy more than cynicism... Perhaps they appear dark in terms of lighting but it’s not my intention to say that the world is a completely dark and depressing place. In some ways I think I’m trying to appreciate the world that I see and the strangeness it already has
Now I realise I’m making a conflicting argument with what I was saying about my work a few weeks ago in that I was interested in reflecting experiences of anxiety. Perhaps the more I’ve painted, the more I’ve become aware of my motivations
I wouldn’t use those words (fantasy and cynicism) to describe your work — each certainly brings along uninvited connotations — but fundamentally I think they sketch out an Axis of Uncanny Intent, haha, which has been useful to me in understanding your work
It’s probably Louise Hearman’s fault, but when I asked right at the beginning of this conversation whether you had any ghost stories, I did so expecting something ‘cooler’ — more apathy than empathy, more detachment than comfort, more cynicism than fantasy — to be underneath (at least some of) your work
And that anxiety you mentioned doesn’t necessarily conflict with what you’re saying; it can just be a reason to appreciate the surrounding strangeness
Is Axis of Uncanny Intent an art reference or did you make it up?
Aaron Perkins © 2018
But that’s interesting you say that my work isn’t ‘detached’ in that way and I agree... I also don’t feel that these works are as ‘cool’ as my other paintings of the fantastical landscapes
Anyway I’m back from Outer Space, so I’ll send you some pictures of my paintings