A Seat at Kate McCrickard’s Table

To mark the exclusive launch of a new series of paintings and drawings, our Curator Phin Jennings visited Kate McCrickard in Paris to speak about how memory, biography and politics find their way into the artist’s work.

By Phin Jennings | 27 Nov 2023

Near the centre of Kate McCrickard’s drawing Aux Folies, a hollow-cheeked man quietly studies the viewer from behind a small table containing an espresso cup on a saucer. It’s a common scene, and around him a usual day at the artist’s local café unfolds, depicted with a busy hand in a Bonnard-like palette of yellows, blues, oranges and pinks. A baby in a pram sucks on a lolly, a gloved hand spoons sugar, a group of jacketed locals gather with hunched shoulders.

In Gin Blossoms with a Hound of Loveanother drawing of a busy scene around a table, things seem to have taken a turn for the more chaotic. Ten figures - human and canine - ignore the spread of food in front of them. They form what looks like a dishevelled conga line, smoking cigarettes and sipping drinks, their faces ranging from vacant to stormy. It’s a slightly dejected but nonetheless lawless bacchanal of colourful characters— and is that a skeleton joining them in the top corner? All bets are off by Sunday Dinner, where somebody has invited a bear to supper. 

Gin Blossoms with a Hound of Love (2023, pastel and charcoal on two sheets of card, 120 x 160 cm)

When I visit her light-filled studio in Paris, McCrickard offers a practical explanation for the increasingly unpredictable subjects she draws and paints: “I have to find the image in the paint on the canvas [...] they’re formal decisions.” Working largely from imagination and memory, she follows her nose towards what makes visual sense— and that doesn’t always line up with what we expect to see or can make sense of. The image comes first. Human, skeleton, dog or bear; if you do something visually for the work, you have a seat at McCrickard’s table. The ideas come second: “is it interesting? Does it mean anything? You can’t question yourself on these things.”

McCrickard in her studio

Luckily, the answer to both of the artist’s questions is yes. She might be attempting - successfully - to create images with a formal sense of harmony first and foremost, but it is inevitable that her own identity and ideas spill into the work. In fact, this is by design. “If that image lacks any shred of significance in my mind,” she explains, “I would worry that the purely formal quest means nothing.”As much as she is interested in the image itself over the references it contains, she doesn’t scrub herself out completely; references to own life and perspective are unavoidably present, and they bring the work to life. In her words, “you’re in the work whether you like it or not.” Sometimes this is straightforwardly biographical. The boy presiding over the dinner table in the top-left corner of Knives, for example, looks a lot like her son (“he’s the genius loci of the studio,” she tells me). The tables themselves - like the one in Aux Folies - are ones that the artist has sat at herself. The line between her world and the world of her work, topsy-turvy as the latter may sometimes be, is necessarily a blurred one.

A small painting of McCrickard’s son, the “genius loci of the studio”

Her politics and worldview also find their way into the images, albeit in a lateral and often slightly obscured way. Perhaps this is a consequence of her ongoing research on South African artist William Kentridge, who she has written about many times. Kentridge, in his own words “never felt [he] needed to distinguish strongly between work that was about the history of art and work about the history of [his] country.” As McCrickard puts it, he “is a very political artist, but he comes at it from the side.”

How does this manifest itself around McCrickard’s tables? What are these chaotic dinner scenes telling us about our world? The answer probably can’t be condensed into a sentence. Chaos, consumption, excess, exuberance, apathy, anger, the strange and the surreal all have their place in her world. In the same breath, McCrickard talks about “scenes of conviviality” and “exhausting the world’s resources.” The sum of all this is an image of humanity that is complex, not straightforwardly optimistic or pessimistic. Perhaps she herself encapsulates best (and not without a slight smile on her face): “We’re savages.”

Eat Your Crow (2023, oil on linen, 60 x 80 x 2 cm)

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