Kate Downie: The Concrete Hour

December 2011

Publication: The Times

 

Kate Downie: The Concrete Hour

Where Where Art Space

Beijing

Until December 18

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Following a study tour to research traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink drawing the Scottish artist Kate Downie has returned to Beijing to complete a residency that builds on her previous findings. Downie’s work has been widely shown in Scotland and internationally and her election, in 2008, to the Royal Scottish Academy helped to confirm her status as an accomplished artist.

 

Over the years Downie has honed her own style and developed a specific way of looking at – and representing – the built and structural environment. Fascinated by urban spaces such as junctions and intersections, she has developed what might be termed a ‘democracy of looking’ in that all spaces, objects and other elements are accorded equal status. There is no prettification and the viewer is never spared that apparent ugliness or discordance that urban architectures often create.

 

Here, in Downie’s first show in China, there is ample evidence of the artist’s working methods. She favours working in situ in almost any context and the results of this way of drawing, with all its immediacy and vitality, feed into larger works.  The powerful charcoal and ink drawings ‘Shique Hutong’ and ‘Gaumao’ both occupy large portions of the gallery walls while also, literally, extending from them.  In ‘Gaumao’ – which depicts a busy intersection with fly-overs, traffic and high-rise buildings – the drawing has been made directly onto the gallery wall and extends around the corner of the room. A bold, angled line, which defines the edge of the drawing, extends from floor to ceiling.

 

‘Shique Hutong’ takes these ideas a step further. Hutongs are the narrow streets and alleyways associated with vernacular Beijing architecture. They are commonly found cheek-by-jowl with the recent Western architecture of skyscrapers and concrete. Here Downie has focussed on a typical street scene that includes a junction, so that the eye travels in two directions simultaneously. As is often the case in Downie’s work, the human figure is given less status than the built environment.  If there is a criticism to be made of her work it is that the human energy and dynamism that created such labyrinthine structures and streetscapes is, if not absent, then somewhat sparse. But then, perhaps that is to miss the point because Downie is far less a figurative artist than one whose primary focus is the totality of the scene before her. In ‘Shique Hutong’ all elements are given an equal place – street signs, a spaghetti of overhead wires and cables compete with road markings, bicycle tracks and foot prints.

 

As if to emphasise the immediacy of the scene, footprints on the gallery floor merge with those in the drawing. This was the result of an earlier performance work orchestrated by Downie in which the audience was encouraged to trample fragments of charcoal into the gallery floor.

 

While it is clear that Downie has responded creatively to the dynamism of the Beijing scene, there is no doubt that her innovative approach will give her audience in China, many of whom will be familiar only with state-approved traditionalism, an insight into new ways of working – and looking.