"I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows of unheard songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst -- burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune."
— Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 1975
Kate Groobey's energetic paintings (in watercolour and oil) generously come to life in the form of music and performance - as is the case in her latest series of works on paper, canvas and video, Start Again. In these new works, the female figure we see throttling a pen over and over is sometimes wresting control from her weapon of choice, sometimes overwhelmed by it; her clumsy but powerful hands clutching, trying to master the tool. There is something absurd and even obscene about this never-ending image - but as is often the case in Groobey's work, comedy and sensuality belie profound and personal intent.
Groobey, an Englishwoman, now lives in the rural south of France - the same terrain where the masters of Modernist painting once roamed. The palettes and psyches of Cezanne, Manet, Picasso, Matisse inhabit a fraught presence in Groobey's work; questioning whether to quote from them, or quash them. Her return to the medium of oil painting - after some years - brings her inevitably back to the beginning, to those artists who first taught her how to look, how to paint. By addressing the male masters, Groobey stakes her authority over the desirous gaze, over the female figure, over the painterly act and gesture, apprehending the patriarchal structures inherent in painting, and in the way we look and are looked at. Groobey insists on the subjective nature of the artist's gaze by going beyond the painting, bringing her subject to life with costume, music and movement, introducing her own body in a kind of ritualistic and erotic worship.
While Groobey's aesthetic appreciation of the indomitable legacy of her male predecessors is evident in both her watercolour works and her oil canvases, Start Again aligns with the ideas of another French cultural figure, Hélène Cixous. As the godmother of a new radical kind of feminist creativity, in the 1970s Cixous urged the re-imagining of "woman for women". A woman's individual body and sexuality should be intertwined with her creativity, without shame or fear, in order to "become at will the taker and the initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process."
Groobey's urgent, insurgent method in Start Again, her circuitous, repetitive, inconclusive motions are the perfect realization of Cixous' demand; to introduce the undulating rhythm and force of female bodies into the language of the work. In the paintings, Groobey's protagonist (to use the word 'muse' would debase the relationship between Groobey and her partner, Jina Khayyer) is squatting - a posture ideal for excreting or giving birth. It is a position that requires stamina and muscular strength. It is the embodiment of the feminine, of our cyclical nature, a symbol of renewal - emptying out, to start again.
Groobey made these works during lockdown, and their energy is palpably different from what she has produced before. Groobey has always created her own world, her paintings don't just hang, they live and breathe and dance, as in Pure Pleasure, the series Groobey made after travelling with Khayyer in LA. Start Again represents a more intense, psychosexual innerscape, less about what we can take from the world and more about what might be given or produced. The exaggerated, large hands, symbolic of the act of labour, craft and art, are prominent in the composition; sensual and tender, they also become threatening, recalcitrant, as the mood and light shifts, day to night.
More than a year ago, Groobey travelled in Japan, after an artist residency and exhibition there. She was struck by the many, varied representations of the popular Buddhist deity, Kannon, the divine mother and goddess of mercy. Kannon is said to have 33 forms; some depictions have 33 heads and the Senju Kannon is in possession of 1,000 arms, each equipped with a different tool to solve any mortal problem. Groobey's encounter with Kannon resurfaces here through the repetition of this single image, her own goddess profane and personal, a totem of love and passion; part of a precious, private world that the viewer cannot fully enter; one shared by lovers alone. And yet slowly, we realise, Groobey's woman is also a simulacrum, the Everywoman present in every woman.
Cixous might have called these repeated images the "stream of phantasms", the rich imaginary of women. I think too of Anaïs Nin, who once wrote, "I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me."
— Charlotte Jansen, June 2020
Charlotte Jansen is a writer and curator based in London. She is editor at large at Elephant.
Or you’ll go insane
Do we build on something unsound
Or raze it to the fucking ground?
The world is in a lockdown
You’d better go and knuckle down
Get started on your next verse
Before you need to see a nurse
There is no medicine in sight
It’s killed by ultraviolet light
Or you’ll go insane
Are you ready for my pencil?
Not sticking to a stencil
Start again, in a free state
Start again, it’s gonna mutate
Think it’s in my nasal cavity
The virus is taking over my rhapsody
Started on my next act
Before it reaches my respiratory tract
Before you get the pathogen
Get started with your pencil
Before the r-rate’s exponential
We are in a pandemic
It’s real it’s not just academic
Time for you to begin
Don’t just take it on the chin
Start again but is the virus
Doing us like tyrannosaurus?
Lyrics to Start Again, written and performed by Kate Groobey