Kate Downie: Estuary at The Scottish Gallery

April 2015

Publication: The Times

For some artists there is an intrinsic relationship between the journey and creativity. Witness the travels of JMW Turner throughout Europe in his search for education, inspiration and ever more challenging subject matter. Many others have worked in the same way.
The link between the work of Turner and that of Kate Downie, despite the 175 years that separate them, is more than superficial. Both artists explore man-made structures and objects such as boats, buildings and bridges; and both do so in varying media such as printmaking, ink, watercolour and oil paint. Both were elected to their respective academies (Downie to the RSA and Turner to the RA) in recognition of their prodigious talents.
Downie has said that her work “. . . attempts to transform ordinary places into poetic acts of memory . . .” She has found, or created, such poeticism in the streets of Edinburgh, on the remote Norwegian island of Karmøy, in the bustle of Beijing, and on the roads, bridges and coastlines of Scotland. She is drawn to junctions, crossroads and borders — the places where the land meets the sky, or the sea meets the land; where one landscape becomes another and is a place of transformation, of competition and of contrast.
The preparation for her present show took her and her partner, Michael Wolchover, on a tour of Australia — including Tasmania — and Japan. As the title suggests, her focus was on estuarine environments, where rivers meet the sea and where the activities of man and nature are dictated by a specific environment.
Downie treats the ordinary with the same respect and fascination as the grandiose, the monumental and magnificent. In a large, elongated oil painting on wood, From Okayama to the Seto Sea, the focus is not on the large modern bridge seen far in the background but on the simple and elegantly constructed bridge of planks and poles that links a path on either side of a muddy inlet. This forms the subject of a smaller ink and watercolour study, Zig-zag Bridge, Okayama, which is, in turn, partnered by Little Bridge, Hagidepicting an even more modest structure.
Such an all-encompassing interest in the visual environment is what Downie has described as “a democracy of looking”. Here, in her notebooks and sketches, it is possible to see the same attention being paid to the structure of Venetian blinds and rotary washing lines as to the Kintai and Sydney Harbour bridges.
Downie does not shy away from the obvious or areas deemed somewhat condescendingly as “for tourists”. In River Source, Uluruand its companion pieces, she transforms her palette from dark grey to sweeps of vivid orange and red. Importantly, she manages to convey a sense of place that extends beyond the visual.
Some of her most powerful work emanates from her time in Tasmania. The Five Day River is dominated by swirling black and grey, edged by greens and yellows; Tamar Estuary is more tranquil, giving prominence to timbers and grasses. Downie is an artist at the height of her powers — energetic, gifted and hungry for experience and experiment.