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Kaye Donachie, 'How colourfully each other self unwinds', 2005, oil on canvas

Kaye Donachie’s paintings seem more ordinary than they turn out to be. First off there’s the style—these are small, loosely painted, often nearly monochromatic representational works, clearly based on photographic sources though without the clean, crisp look of the photographic image itself. This is one of the standard modes of contemporary art-making post-Kilimnik, post- Tuymans, one you can see lots of at any good art fair (which isn’t to say there aren’t excellent painters who fall under this description—think of Gillian Carnegie or Michael Borremans). Then there’s the subject matter—again, rather familiar in art of recent years: reflections of spiritual or utopian aspirations gone sour (for instance, the rather harmless-looking half-naked hippies frolicking in the woods in Donachie’s last show here, turned out to be members of the Manson family). This chimes with work as different as, say, Joachim Koester’s recent photographic examination of the traces of Alasteir Crowley in an abandoned Sicilian villa or Carol Bove’s sculptural reconfigurations of some ideal library of the 60s.

As a result, Donachie has been described as diagnosing ‘symptoms of a dubious promise of salvation, nostalgia and yearning’ seen as ‘aftereffects of a misunderstood ideal’ (as Ralf Christofori put it in the catalogue to an important show in Frankfurt last year, Ideal Worlds: New Romanticism in Contemporary Art . But I’m not convinced Donachie’s stance toward the ‘symptoms’ she depicts is quite as straightforwardly critical as all that. A strong dose of nostalgia and yearning seems to permeate the paintings themselves and to be essential to what, after all, makes them much more affecting than their widespread (though hardly exhausted) subject matter and familiar (though flexible and persuasive) style might suggest.

That’s all the more the case with the work in this show, ‘Monte Verità’, insofar as this time she is delving further back in time to contemplate a less disastrous sort of alternative community than the one that went on a Southern California murder spree in 1969. ‘Mount Truth’, set on a hill on the Swiss side of Lago Maggiore, was a haunt for early 20th century bohemians like Isadora Duncan, Hermann Hesse, and Rudolf Steiner, and now the site of a museum with memorabilia collected by Harald Szeeman. The activities of these naturists, Theosophists, and followers of the occult today seem merely ineffectual, perhaps ridiculous, but hardly sinister. In ‘Your Untold Dreams I Would Love to See’, 2005, for instance, a solitary male figure—nude, Christlike with his long hair and beard as he poses on a rock, kneeling with one hand aloft in a sort of salute—might be hailing a future that will never exist. His rock seems a sort of pedestal, as if he were already becoming a monument to something rather than a living being.

And yet the haunted feeling that pervades these pictures creates a frisson suggestive of anything but innocence. Their eerie, sallow light gives Donachie’s paintings the dreamlike aura of things at once more vivid, more compulsive than reality, and yet terribly distant, and this makes them all the more alluring. She makes the viewer feel like a voyeur, and this historical voyeurism feel sexy. Maybe that’s why her Manson series stuck in my mind far more than their low-key presence seemed to reasonably justify, and why the same thing seems to be happening with the new work.

Barry Schwabsky is an art critic