In her debut solo show at David Krut Projects, British artist Kate McCrickard showed recent paintings and prints incorporating images of young children. This is dangerous territory for a female artist, as McCrickard is well aware, but she has nonetheless surrendered to an infinitely rich source of material: “Before I had children I didn’t have a subject—I never dreamt of this as being a subject. But I wanted to get back to figuration and intaglio is made for the figure.”
While not denying its emotional appeal, McCrickard sees her subject matter pragmatically: “Children fit nicely into the formats I like,” she says. “It’s about composition. A tall gangly adult wouldn’t do it. ”
If the sometimes old-fashioned clothing and haircuts of the children initially invite comparison with the etchings of Mary Cassatt [simultaneously on view at the New York Public Library; see review this issue], further investigation reveals that McCrickard’s work is anything but conventional. McCrickard, who lives, somewhat ambivalently, in Paris, concedes that part of the city’s artistic legacy has seeped into her work. “As soon as you represent figures in interiors it is inevitable that you will think of that French tradition of children and domestic scenes. It was not deliberate and it is not even a tradition I studied. But I realized it wasn’t twee to show kids at home because I thought of the people who had done it before.”
A fin de siècle element is present not only in McCrickard’s themes but in the abundantly detailed compositions that allow her to explore pattern, color and mark-making in the manner of Vuillard and Matisse. Children, she observes, are “a damn good resource for movement and color.” French motifs are clearly visible, for example, in the series of prints she calls “postcard monotypes,” printed with water-based inks in a restricted palette. At 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches, these vignettes of daily life with young children are actually double the size of a postcard, but the modest format provided McCrickard with a discipline she found helpful in building up a body of work. “It is a very good way to start the day—on a small scale in the studio,” she says. (In addition to the images McCrickard has extracted from the coalface of childrearing, she has also found time to write a book on William Kentridge in the Tate Gallery’s Modern Artists series 2012).
One “postcard” shows two little girls (the artist’s daughters) in the foreground of what appears to be a Parisian café, determinedly defying the most basic rules of etiquette. The younger one sits on the table, perilously close to a steaming cup of coffee; imminent disaster is suggested by her beady gaze and outstretched hand. In the background at the zinc and at a table nearby, three men have turned away from the children; the broad-brimmed hat of one of them and the fur-collared coat of another conjure the costumes of an earlier era—touches of Toulouse-Lautrec perhaps. Despite the allusions and the incipient drama, the artist’s concentration on form and composition remains primary. In other postcards, abstract shapes emerge in the spaces between small heads leaning together or in the pattern of a child’s dress. A little girl, face pressed up against the picture plane in one corner of a print, is championed over the sketchy figures of adults in the background. Some of the black-and-white images in this series also look a bit like vintage snapshots, small in scale, with heads and other details cropped at the edges.
Unlike her grand 19th-century predecessors, however, who presumably retreated to their ateliers after breakfast, leaving women to clear the accumulated detritus, McCrickard printed this series at home. Her “studio” is a small open space one step up from her sitting room, mere yards from that sticky, toast-littered breakfast table, and thus embedded in the domestic fray she depicts so viscerally in her work. The tabletop press used to print these monotypes is usually stored at the foot of the marital bed. It is almost as though the cluttered scenes in these and McCrickard’s other works in “Kid” have emerged organically from the unavoidable chaos of modern life with young children—foodstuffs (served by an adult whose presence is sometimes reduced to an arm extending into the frame) are consumed randomly with fingers or forks or large wooden spoons; children are frequently seen in motion—whirling dervishes running, dancing, playing with toys and musical instruments—and only sometimes at peace, being read to or piled together in a heap like kittens in the big bed. These Parisian kids, products of a contemporary liberal parenting regime, would surely have awakened Cassatt’s contained, sleepy enfants with their trumpeting and run riot through Vuillard’s decorous dining rooms, upsetting the tea things, dislodging the cat, and alarming the voluminously black-clad grandmère.
McCrickard loves the discipline of working in series and has a predilection for a conservative practice that is firmly rooted in her formal training—she studied Fine Art at Edinburgh University— but printmaking is nonetheless a place of experimentation for her, a medium in which she finds ways to represent her subject in anything but obvious guises. To this end, she has been collaborating recently with master printers in Paris and South Africa. Michael Woolworth, the American printer who has lived and worked in Paris for some 30 years, gave her the idea of making monotypes with acrylic, and 12 of the works they produced together were shown at David Krut. Woolworth clearly understands McCrickard’s fascination with techniques that incorporate unpredictability. Making monotypes with acrylic is a demanding technique in which the image-making time is limited to about 15 minutes.
Beginning with a base of lithographic ink rolled onto a Plexiglas support, McCrickard drew with cotton swabs through to the paper to create a white line and wiped the surface with rags before building up the image with water-based acrylics and extender. The interaction between the oil- and water-based pigments introduces often surprising results that are dependent on the specific liquidity and drying time of each pigment. It allows for large bleeds and even rips where the paint has dried; sometimes the paint squishes into the reductive white lines or bleeds across whole areas, creating passages of unexpected tone and tertiary colors.
In these large (22 x 30 inches), elaborate, boldly colored works, the figures in the postcards seem to have been blown up, almost as if in cinematic close-up. There are charming details: a group of three tiny children, hands gesturing in apparent negotiation; two little girls at the piano in matching blue skirts. But there are moments of disturbing grotesquerie here too—distorted faces with big staring eyes; a pair of pale legs appearing in the foreground against a tangle of forms the color of blood. In one of several monotypes of a carousel, among the most successful works made with Woolworth, abstraction emerges in the printing of an image that, McCrickard says, “was quite legible on the plate.” The figures of children and painted horses are unexpectedly subverted to an overall scheme that is decorative and dynamic.
In the series of delicate soft-ground etchings called Childhood Scenes that McCrickard made mostly at David Krut Print Workshop (DKW) in Johannesburg in February, she returned to the small format of the postcard monotypes. The aim was to achieve “a line as quick as the line in my sketchbooks and softground seemed to be the best way.” She had attempted to achieve this by herself in Paris, but without success. Jillian Ross at DKW created a ground sensitive enough to take fingerprints and to record fine detail as the artist worked through a sheet of thin paper applied to the surface. Each plate was bitten two or three times to achieve gradations of gray that read almost like graphite. While they do not reflect the kind of bold risk-taking seen in the acrylic monotypes, these austere works, like the postcard monotypes, benefit from their intimate format and lend themselves to both expressiveness and exquisite passages of abstraction. In the print Bedtime Stories, the heads of a parent and two children are united by a single undulating line, and the figures are further established as a unit by the pages of the open book held before them; in Boys!, the sole of a man’s foot, crossed over his leg as he reads to a child on the bed, forms a curious conjunction with the bowl haircut of the girl who walks, pouting, toward the right edge of the sheet. (There is more than a little Edward Ardizzone and Quentin Blake in such eccentric details—the artist cannot escape either children’s book illustration or her English origins, it seems.)
This is subject matter that will never dry up. But it does mean, says McCrickard, that “you develop a mercenary eye. You are always looking for shapes and compositions in everyday life.” From traditional themes and a conservative training, the artist has wrested a vivid body of work. Though she continues to paint as well, print is ultimately at the absolute center of her production. Indeed, she says, “I can’t imagine trying to paint without making prints. All the masters I admire in the history of art have painted and made prints. The press is magical—it makes everything better.”
The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Jacqueline Nurse: Kate McCrickard: Kid , published by David Krut Publishing, 2013 . 26 pages, 32 illustrations.