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Kaye Donachie, 'I do believe that most of me, floats under water', 2010, oil on canvas

I suspect that there is an air of romanticism about Kaye Donachie’s latest paintings, with both ‘air’ and ‘romance’ being the operative terms. Previously known for creating tableaux based upon social gatherings that have been described as utopian scenarios, her more recent paintings have been of singular individuals. This current show is no different in that the six paintings, hung sparsely on one side of the gallery, are images of women. Consistent with her stated interest in counter culture, they are inspired by early modernist bohemians and radicals: writers, poets, artists and actors (Edna St Vincent Millay, Nina Hamnett, Michael Corinne West and Mina Loy). I like to think that these characters may well be heroines or role models for the artist.

Upstairs, Donachie has also gathered a group of five shorts, made between 1930 and 1973, to accompany the show, the most famous being out-takes from the experimental filmmaker Maya Darren’s unfinished Witches Cradle, 1943. These little films offer an interesting insight into Donachie’s current work. In fact, the titles of her paintings are drawn from one of them, the poet Edna St Vincent Millay’s 1956 ‘Journal’, in which Millay (probably) reads one of her poems. In a James Broughton film ‘Four in the Afternoon’, a gardener daydreams in his garden; it is poetically playful and silly, light and whimsical. The quality Donachie has absorbed from the films is this sense of playful eccentricity and, more importantly, a sense of longueur. In all of them time seems to have been suspended, the atmosphere arid as in the long summer days.

Her painterly ‘soft focus’ images based upon photographic sources recalls that of Luc Tuymans in approach, and Karen Kilimnik in subject matter. But it is her subtle colour and sensitive painterly touch that separates her from these others, the effect creating a sense of atmosphere which adds to the feeling of cool detachment or nostalgia in the work as if memory were being recalled. This time her use of colour is deployed in a more complex way than previously. Gone is the sense of jaundiced colourisation—instead, warmer muted hues have taken hold and seem more integral to the pictures. In addition, one gets the impression that she is mimicking the cinematic effect of dissolving one image into another. For instance in ‘Myself I think shall never know, how far beneath the wave I go’, one head seems to fade into another. Both face opposite directions, while in the background there are the two moons like lights in the sky, all painted in blue tones. Rather than a cinematic fade of one character into another, one senses that this may be two views of a single character lost deep in contemplation. Perhaps it is two moments in time.

There is another way to consider this detachment. Based upon the theories of the critic Denis Diderot, the art historian and modernist critic Michael Fried described a condition of ‘absorption’ in 18th century French painting. It was essential that the drama and actions of the figures within the painting seal off their world, thus excluding the ‘beholder’ in a ‘supreme fiction’. Failure to achieve this would result in theatricality. In the 1960s one might have cheekily described this ‘absorption’ as the effects of a ‘purple haze’, and ‘haze’ is not far off the atmosphere that Donachie achieves here. The point is that there is a moment of suspension, as if each portrait was frozen in time and the subject lost to the world—in a word, absorbed.

Donachie has spoken of trying to ‘evoke or merge a moment of romantic ideal’. It seems that in previous images of gatherings, a utopian idealism associated with youth was being depicted; her current paintings have a more mature but perhaps more melancholy sense of hope. Leaving aside the narrative details (after all one is not given enough information to single out people), we are in the end left with the paintings themselves. They are enigmatic, but lovingly created and imbued with a certain ‘moods’. The key quality is that of longing, perhaps for another era, but more, I sense, for another way to be. ‘Never expect anything, said the tadpole, and everything will surprise you…’ chimes one of her films. Something similar happens if you leave your ideas of portraiture at the door. Perhaps utopia is a sense of detachment—the less you want the more you receive.

Sherman Sam is an artist and writer based in London and Singapore