The reflections of light off of water are never the same. Amorphous and intangible, they represent the projection of what lies outside. Beneath, the surface is calm and still but with possibilities of dissolution within powerful currents of uncertainty much like the workings of our own subconscious. Katharine Harvey’s interest in water as a subject both literal and metaphorical stems in part from childhood memories exploring, swimming and sailing at her family cottage on The Lake of Bays, but also from water’s power as a symbol for such a wide spectrum of human endeavor. The artist has said that her work “evokes both states of calm and calamity by portraying water’s power to at once nourish and annihilate, soothe and suffocate”.
Waves of Light presents works from several series that span the last two decades of Harvey’s studio production with the addition of two of the artist’s sketchbooks. The sketchbooks are visual journals from a 1987 Southeast Asian adventure, and a 1991 Kenyan experience where Harvey volunteered for the Kenyan Blind Woman’s Association. The imagery within them still serves as inspiration for her studio practice.
A small postcard size work titled Walking on Water introduces us to some of the themes that permeate many of the works in the exhibition. On a souvenir lenticular postcard of a figure in the water Harvey has painted the surface completely obscuring the figure and expanded the surface of the sea to completely cover its image. The three dimensionality of the lenticular image is broken up by the application of paint on the surface disrupting the illusion and bringing the surface sharply into focus. This technique is repeated with two slightly larger lenticular photos, Gladstone 1998 and Flying Ship 1998, of model sailing vessels found in Toronto storefronts. The painted watery surfaces upon which the vessels float, combined with reflections from the street and shadowy figures from within serve to completely confuse the eye, drawing us into a narrative that requires our imaginations to fill in the blanks.
Storefront windows have also served as inspiration for the artist. She has written about an “unquenchable enthusiasm for overcrowding paraphernalia of all descriptions” that is in evidence in many storefronts from which she has drawn inspiration. This can can be found in the larger lenticular photographs Crystal Storefront and Home from 2003. Harvey explains the process: “Utilizing Photoshop to close-crop the images, I organized the images into intricately orchestrated layers of depth. Dimensional Imaging Inc. in Toronto collaborated with me by interlacing the computer files using complex software. The company laminated the resultant inkjet prints underneath lenticular film in order to achieve 3-D effects. Colourful objects seem to dance in front of the picture plane or, at other moments, are camouflaged within the photo, creating effects that are slightly otherworldly.”
Connections between these lenticular experiments and Harvey’s most recent paintings are many. In works such as Colouring Book 2015, View From the Bow Port Aux Choix 2015 and Golden Days 2013 the artist first paints on the canvas surface and then builds up multiple layers of clear acrylic gel medium. After many layers, more paint is applied and the sequence is repeated sometimes building up over sixty layers, and in the process Harvey creates a three dimensional image. She then applies a final coat of gel medium that reveals a deliberate streaking upon the surface that mirrors the vertical layers found in the lenticular photos. The capsule-like forms that make up the coloured segments in these works also operate as picture elements building an image much the same way that the pixel does in a digital image.
Memories of “the fair” or “the Ex” or some other configuration of community summer/fall spectacle are common. In her Carnival series, Harvey taps into these memories, exploring the sense of excitement that is the midway. Chaotic exuberance permeates these paintings with an energy that is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. The whirling, spinning and turning rides that are depicted generate a kind of vertigo that is thrilling and perhaps a little disconcerting. The paint in these works is applied in swirls and stripes, in drips and dabs alluding to the gravity defying acrobatics of the large mechanical attractions. About her technique Harvey states: “My painterly depictions of streaming trails of light alternate between photographic realism and colourful abstraction. I experiment with a loss of control in my gestures, alternatively reining in the brushstrokes and letting them run untamed.” The results are a visceral visual experience complete with sounds and smells.
When looking at her installation Lake of Bays 2013-2015 we experience first hand Harvey’s “unquenchable enthusiasm for overcrowding paraphernalia of all descriptions”. Here she constructs an eight by eight foot work comprised completely out of vacuum formed plastic and its accompanying colourful packaging. Alluding again to shimmering watery surfaces, there is also in this work the hint of an image that emerges. While highlighting the environmental disaster that our package-crazy consumer culture has spawned, in clear evidence in the growing “islands” of discarded plastic found floating in both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, Harvey also constructs something that is compelling and beautiful.
Katharine Harvey’s ability to layer and ultimately to collapse some of her chosen materials within her subject matter is remarkable. Effortlessly weaving explorations of the optical qualities of water along with some of its metaphorical possibilities, she poetically unfolds narratives that speak to memory and the mysteries of the subconscious. Building up the surfaces of her canvases with layers of acrylic gel medium her works glisten with qualities of light that reflect back to us moods and imagery that may trigger our own memories. Memory is a thing very much like water. It ebbs and flows in and out of focus – we want to hold onto it but inevitably it slips through our fingers.
all photos by Toni Hafkenscheid