Someone who voluntarily works for a month in a wooden hut at 2560 metres with temperatures dropping to minus 15 degrees celcius is probably desperate. Or an artist. Kate Palmer is that artist. She spent a recent residency at Galerie Maste 4 in Saas Fee, Switzerland. A qualified snowboard instructor, she delighted in the chance to combine her passions and there developed the beginnings of the 'Sluff' and 'Riding Switch' painting series.
A selection of these works appeared in a recent collaborative show with David MacDiarmid called 'Collapse' at Arthouse1. Mainly large monochrome canvases, they are made in multiple layers and deletions of paint and other materials. Tape is adhered to and peeled off the surface in a repetition of adding and taking away. It's an instinctive process which underscores the theory of humans being capable of making organic forms, rather than something made first in the mind. And the series' titles slip easily into stories of human as part of nature and nature as the protagonist for challenge and change.
Familiar perhaps to skiers and snowboarders, the 'Sluff' series is named after the trail of snow tumbling down and out on a deep descent. The rider cuts through the surface of the snow which then falls at a racing pace til it finally settles in a crumbling sprawl. It's technically a mild avalanche. Like a mild stroke. Something's broken and ultimately it's okay but best to keep ahead of the rupture and avoid something worse. It's the sort of drama you see when big mountain freestyler Travis Rice heliboards off a glacier in Patagonia or somewhere else that demands skilled precision to master the conditions.
'Riding switch' also finds its origins in the mountains. For the snowboarder who naturally rides one foot forward, it is the practice of using the opposite foot in front and is a prerequisite for professionals. It's also, for the regular rider, a way to rest your main leg which does all the hard work. So you don't collapse with exhaustion, though you may collapse learning to master the technique.
Kate described the wrestle with learning to put the wrong foot forward: 'For me it was quite a metaphor in terms of the idea that, once you're able to accomplish riding in one way, that actually you can increase the difficulty in order to get the regular riding better and to take something beyond your comfort zone. If you learn to ride switch, that sort of ambidexterity means you have to go through all the difficulty of learning again in order to gain something that's beyond normal riding. But it's also really damn difficult and I think of it like the idea of making artworks and being in that area of doubt and not knowing what's going to happen.'
The curation of her show with David was a similar mystery which gradually unfolded itself as a collaborative effort of discussion, placement and observing something indefinable going on between their work. Kate, a fourth year trainee in psychodynamic psychotherapy, drew on the writings of eminent British therapist Wilfred Bion, to explain a shared effort 'to try to not understand what's happening in the room in the moment but to experience and be absorbent to unconscious communication so that you're not bringing yourself into the mix. Therefore being able to tolerate doubt, being able to tolerate not knowing, which is extremely difficult and I'm not sure if it's completely achievable. That idea also helped me to think about my own practice and about the difficulty of having a desire to have outcome and marrying that desire with realising that if I go into making something with an outcome in mind then that will destroy my ability to come up with something that goes beyond my own understanding of what I could do.'
'Collapse' carried with it a sense of teetering on the edge, where David's work was almost familiar while avoiding lucidity and Kate's images hovered between existence and erasure. Or, as she describes, something 'momentarily visible before it recedes again' through 'navigating a surface and navigating materials'. It is this illusiveness which creates intrigue with her images. From afar they appear like foggy mountain landscapes at low visibility. Step up close for clarity and the location of what lies where dissipates. This is a case of losing sight of the trees for the forest. Instead, scratches, smudges, exposures and overpainting reveal the artist as conductor of an energetic exertion of materials until they settle somewhere as a score sheet of their own application.
Kate Palmer, once a student at Royal College, now a senior lecturer at City & Guilds of London Art School, envisages an unclear path ahead in her art practice. The experience of her collaboration with David MacDiarmid needs to be considered and processed in time, the outcome now unknown. Though there's little doubt that the illusive imagery will continue in some form (and formlessness) from an artist who believes 'the search for certainty is the greatest folly and the closest thing to madness'.