In an age of liquid borders, climate change, plastic pollution and mass immigration, the world is watching its water. It is a theme that has also taken over our cultural life, where aquatic paintings, photographs and digital installations flood our galleries.
The theme has been a recurring subject in Alex Katz’s paintings for decades. For the 94-year-old American painter, the motif seduces by its mutability. “The water is constantly changing and it’s impossible to paint completely, so you do one part today and try another part tomorrow,” Katz explains. “You can never do it right. Your attempts run out, so you try something else. Katz’s seascapes, painted over 40 years in Maine, have been brought together for a solo exhibition titled Floating Worlds/Floating Worlds at the Espace Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris last fall. They were created around three bodies of water near his little cabin – a pond, a stream and the seaside, with some also painted in Mexico and Belgium. “It’s interesting how Katz has returned to this theme of seascapes over the decades,” says Ropac, “redefining it each time.”
There is a strong sense of abstraction in Katz’s reflective works, which shifted from the flatness of his early paintings to something more transparent in his later canvases. More than anything, Katz offers an incredible approach to color. “Color is empirical,” notes the artist. “It’s just a way of making light.” For the curator of the exhibition Eric de Chassey, the paintings “show that the deepest thoughts come from concentrated moments. It could be called contemplation, but not in a religious sense. It’s something very active, and it arouses a kind of activity in the viewer.
Water is very different in the works of young British painter Patrick H Jones, who had a solo exhibition at Frieze Art Fair with The Sunday Painter Gallery and recently exhibited at Galerie pcp in Paris. The artist’s long, rectangular canvases depict fish in what he calls “cranky, clammy water.” The works were inspired by Jones’ personal relationship with grief. “I wanted to explore the more difficult and repetitive mental cycles that we carry with us,” he explains. “It seemed appropriate to use water as an analogy to discuss the surface and sub-surface of the human psyche.
“I feel that the rarer and darker the works, the longer the viewer has to take to see and feel the work. Water is kind of like that – it reveals more the longer you sit with it. His large format works seem to stretch and engulf the viewer. Here, water is a slippery subject that echoes the spirit.
In the Renaissance, water represented purity: let us recall Botticelli’s Venus emerging from the sea. In the 19th century, it was the central motif of maritime power or political chaos, as with Géricault. Raft of the Medusa, or just a mighty example of the power of nature – see Turner’s turbulent seascapes. Artists today owe more to the complexity and haunting nature of Roni Horn’s photographs of the Thames, her images accompanied by stories of lives lost. There are those, for example, whose work has drawn on the relationship to water and the Atlantic slave trade, such as the installations inspired by Dominique White’s fishing nets or the cinematographic works of Alberta Whittle. But the hyperrealistic canvases of Los Angeles-based Calida Rawles resist the depiction of trauma. With her representations of figures, often dressed in white robes, bathing in light blue water, she claims water as a space in which black people can flourish.
“I want to go beyond showing us in pain or being victims of something that happened in history,” she explains. “I think we are more self-sufficient; we are enlightened; we are informed and we move forward with this history as part of our DNA. His bathers evoke ideas of transcendence or baptism. “It’s almost like cleaning ourselves up from history and what we’ve been through, and showing our strength.”
It’s not just painters who are drawn to water. The recreation of waves was at the heart of the installation by Korean collective A’strict starry beach, which premiered at LUX at 180 The Strand before Christmas. Their multi-directional installation resembled the ebb and flow of the seaside, but consisted of lights that surrounded the viewer in a mirrored infinity room. “We wanted to show a wave that is unfamiliar to most people – a wave splashing above our heads,” the band explains. “We wanted to express an overwhelming emotion in the face of great nature.”
Originally, Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung did not intend his cyanotypes to deal with water. He began the work with the mountains in mind, but soon saw that his photographic blue spaces resembled tumultuous waves. As the series grew, he began to explore ways the works could be interpreted as traditional Shanshui paintings, ocean views, and natural landscapes. He started working with the method in 2012, frustrated with the ease of digital photography. “I thought I could try the possibilities of combining previous techniques and materials, and hoped to be able to work with Xuan paper.” The Chi-Tsung process is direct and analogical. He works outdoors, using chemicals and ultraviolet light – “I’m basically like a farmer,” he laughs. After two hours of crumpling and exposing his traditional cyanotype paper – a combination of materials never tried before – he washes each sheet in water for up to an hour, depending on the effect he wants to achieve. “It’s physical. I crumble the paper, I touch the paper. When the humidity is different, it affects the paper. If it’s drier, it’s harder. If it’s wetter, it’s sweeter. There are a lot of coincidences that I can’t control. That’s the best part.
The results are abstract but look like seascapes. “I can’t say if [the work] is concrete or abstract,” he adds. “Chinese landscapes never really represent specific mountains. An artist draws his own interpretation of the scene. Chi-Tsung’s works are getting bigger and bigger: his recent exhibition at Sean Kelly in New York included a triptych of pieces reaching up to 9m in height. The works also reflect the artist’s love of rock climbing in Taipei – “facing a giant wall every day and a sea wave right behind me”. Likewise, its objective is to immerse the viewer in space.
The sea has also become an almost accidental focus of interest for British artist Fiona Banner (aka The Vanity Press) – her recent work is a by-product of work on a sculptural project that later became a collaboration with Greenpeace. “I came across a lot of paintings of big boats, galleons and warships,” says Banner, who works partly on the south coast, overlooking the English Channel. She began to paint on ships, creating “existential seascapes”. “I thought about what this coast means to me, like a divider, a conduit, a complex waterway. What’s so seductive about the sea is that it’s this invisible culture.
For Banner, the sea began to present an image of possibility, as well as a space of climatic catastrophe. His erased boats, transformed into floating punctuation marks, were “a manifestation of a crisis”, but also signaled the potential for “language [to be] a courier of truth, meaning or content”. They also rightly remind us that the use of water in art remains gloriously fluid.