Kate Wilson at General Hardware

Imagine a garden at night: an entirely different place than the day-lit version. Flowers have closed their petals. The birds are gone. Even the insects are different, replaced by nocturnal moths and other strange creatures. You might find moonflowers that open only in the dark. This is not familiar territory. Do you belong here? With your feeble night vision and fear of the dark?

It’s into a world like this, of unease and mystery, that Kate Wilson’s new paintings invite you to enter. A shadowy world in which your vision falters and where what you see is generated more from internal imagination than external reality.

Wilson has titled the show Night Botanicals but don’t expect still life flower paintings in any conventional sense. There are floral elements here, but by not restricting the work to realistic representation, Wilson opens the paintings to a much wider range of interpretations.

Installation view of Kate Wilson: Night Botanicals at General Hardware Gallery

The paintings are small and dark, with a velvety matte surface. They beckon you to meet them up close. These oil paintings on wooden panels are covered in gutsy, confident brushwork that does not shy away from mixing colour directly on the surface. Wilson’s handling of paint records every step of her process, each movement of the brush and pressure in the wrist. Although similar in style and tone, each one of these paintings offers a unique experience.

In Botanical Night the view is framed by dark organic shapes. You see through to a space suffused with a luminous red glow. Is this a sunset? Or is it fire? Warmth or danger? You don’t know. Shadowy shapes grow in from the edges unaffected by gravity. Which way is up? Are you looking down? Or perhaps you’re on the ground looking skyward? A small cluster of flower-like shapes in the lower right corner draw you in. As you focus your attention, jewel like colours rise out of the darkness.

Botanical Night, 2023, oil on panel, 20” x 16”

The enigmatic subject matter leaves you without a reference to scale. In addition to botanicals, the paintings might represent microscopic pond-life, or images on a galactic scale seen through a space telescope. In her writing, Wilson says she searches for a ‘zeitgeist’ of imagery: a visual language that reflects our time in history. Her previous work has included references to astronomy, exoplanets, molecular models, and microscopic imagery. You can see in these paintings both micro and mega scales.

In Botanical Mechanics 13 silvery brush marks, like feathered wings, obscure darker, spectral objects behind. In the foreground there’s a constellation of small dots rendered to appear spherical.  ‘Mechanics’ in the title might lead you to consider these objects as distant stellar bodies or possibly microscopic particles. Are we dealing with celestial mechanics? Or quantum mechanics? Possible interpretations multiply the longer you look.  Could these spheres be bubbles; are we under water? Or are they droplets on a glass surface?

Botanical Mechanics 13, 2023, oil on panel, 14” x 11”

Botanical Mechanics 18 draws you in to a dark cavernous space. The darkest section of the painting weighs heavily from above. At the bottom, there are two bright spots hinting at a far-off exit from this cave. The feathery shapes above haunt the space like some menacing bird of prey. As you look deeper into this picture you see more colour and texture as though your eyes are adjusting to the low light in this grotto. At the centre of the panel the paint is thinner, and we can make out the texture of the gesso and the first layers of paint. We are seeing back to the beginning. Wilson lets us see the entire history of how the work came together. 

Botanical Mechanics 18, 2023, oil on panel, 12” x 8”

Wilson’s paintings illustrate the peculiar paradox that in dim light your mind, if not your eyes, see more. In the bright light of day, there is little ambiguity; you see the world as it is. But in the dark, with less information, you continually make best guesses as to what is out there. In shadows, what you imagine seeing may be far richer than what is really there.

Wilson uses painterly conventions to create depth with light, shadow, and the illusion of reflective surfaces. The shapes and marks suggest botanical subject matter but remain ambiguous enough that your imagination is coaxed into searching for new associations and interpretations. These small paintings require a bit of effort to get in to, but you’ll be richly rewarded. You’ll be surprised at how much you can see in the dark!

Mikael Sandblom

Images are courtesy of General Hardware Contemporary

*Exhibition information: Kate Wilson, Night Botanicals, August 26 – September 24, 2023, General Hardware Contemporary, 1520 Queen Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat 12 – 6 pm.

**The exhibition is part of Gallery Weekend Toronto, September 21 – 24, 2023

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