Between the professional and the personal

‘As the narrative proceeds, the works, which are diaristic and time specific, begin to reposition this very ordinary group of people and their frivolous pursuits within a wider time-frame of historical events … The work concludes, insecurely poised on the cusp of the future, enquiring into the domestic and the family area, and the lack of unity between the personal and the professional vision’. Kate Mellor Une Semaine de Boneur

Looking at Kate Mellor’s series Une Semaine de Boneur, I remembered Geraldine Finn’s claim that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us. Kate Mellor’s statement to accompany Une Semaine de Bonheur dutifully acknowledges the artistic and intellectual categories within which its production might be located, according to conventional expectations of our academic ‘high’ culture. However, by acknowledging a ‘lack of unity between … personal and the professional vision’, it points away from that culture to the disjuncture at the heart of a growing psychosocial crisis.

Kate Mellor’s current work can be read in a number of ways but is of particular interest where it reflects what I see as a ‘cartographic’ sensibility, one that charts the unsettling physical and temporal processes whereby material and psychic change mirror, interact and commingle with each other. This tracing of an ‘alchemical’ cartographic vision was implicit in earlier work like Island, the result of journeys to those margins where earth and water meet to seek ‘illumination’ (the goal of philosophical alchemy), that clarity of mind that allows us to ‘reach and grasp’ what Mellor refers to as ‘the great ungraspables’.

This aspiration somehow both darkened and deepened in the extraordinary series In the Steps of Robert Pinnacle, with its melancholic exploration – made explicit in images such as Maritata and Persons of Substance – of a culture of restorative practices and their decay, implicit within the history of European Spa towns from which the project takes its starting-point.

The new work, however, abandons the slow, cool time of stone and water for the hot, fragile and strangely analogous temporalities of flesh and newsprint, which here become subject to a visual meditation on the hopes and fears implicit in both their rapid, unpredictable redundancy and their ability to point beyond themselves to a history, a life. Metaphors for an intellect fully cognisant of standing on the brink of social and ecological nightmare – a situation in which it too is somehow implicated – collide with traces of mundane, if heartfelt, family rituals; made up of the sense of pleasure in good eating, leisure, warmth and companionship with which we seek to surround our children.

The resonant, unselfconscious figure of the girl-child who haunts these images seems both to rebuke adult insularity in the face of social exploitation, terror and impending ecological disaster and, simultaneously, to hint at the necessary gift that is immediate, pre-verbal, embodied love for the other – the lived gift without which our reasoned political passions are empty, diversionary gestures.

The strength of these images is that, as a series, they have been able to house a heartfelt collision of the professional and the personal, and in ways that make no concessions either to the over-professionalised rhetoric of academic ‘social commitment’ or to the obsessive personalism of our popular ‘look at me’ culture.

Iain Biggs
Reader in Visual Art Practice, UWE, Bristol