Art review: Katy Dove at Dundee Contemporary Arts

In 1999, as part of her degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, the artist Katy Dove made a short film entitled Fantasy Freedom. A lovely pulsing gem of a thing, it owes a lot to the animations of pioneering and experimental mid-century figures like Norman McLaren. Fantasy Freedom is a kind of lyrical yet punk response to the beautiful but industrial model of Disney's epic Fantasia: short, simple, succinct. It lasts just 90 seconds, in which time abstract watercolour images come and go to a soundtrack of the artist's own breath and her spinning bicycle wheel. It is relentless in its rhythm, but delightful in its charm. Judging by its apparent simplicity, the film might have been made in 1949. Is it possible to reinvent the wheel? I think it's just possible that Katy Dove did.

Installation view of Meaning in Action, 2013, by Katy Dove, courtesy the artist's estate. PIC: Ruth Clark
Installation view of Meaning in Action, 2013, by Katy Dove, courtesy the artist's estate. PIC: Ruth Clark
Installation view of Meaning in Action, 2013, by Katy Dove, courtesy the artist's estate. PIC: Ruth Clark

Dove died in January 2015, at the age of 44. At Dundee Contemporary Arts you can see the full span of her artistic achievement. Her art practice spanned music, on her own account and with collaborators including Muscles of Joy, the all-female experimental arthouse band with a fluctuating membership of Glasgow artists, and Full Eye, with Anne-Marie Copestake and Ariki Porteous, which focused on the intensity of rhythm and its role in meditative practice and personal transformation.

Katy Dove *****

Dundee Contemporary Arts

With artists Sarah Kenchington and Belinda Gilbert-Scott, she worked in the Campsies setting up artists’ residencies in caravans on a farm near Balfron. Dove studied psychology at the University of Glasgow before winning a scholarship to Dundee, and she brought to her art practice an interest in colour and light perception, in nature, and in theories that linked the body with the mind. Amongst her peers she cut a singular figure, yet she found it easy and necessary to work with others.

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In 2003, just a few years out of college, she was one of a group of artists invited to make new work for Zenomap, Scotland’s first post-devolution national contribution to the Venice Biennale. That summer was unspeakably hot. As part of a screening programme at a local school gymnasium, Dove’s work You, with a relentless Velvet Underground-like riff and gentle psychedelia, felt like a cool breeze. In the subsequent decade she had many solo institutional shows including at the Pump House gallery in Battersea, London, at the Talbot Rice in Edinburgh and at Spacex, Exeter.

Dove wasn’t afraid of technology – her lovely exhibition Flora Flora, at Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery in 2002 included a downloadable screensaver – but her art was about exploring how computers might extend analogue, felt emotion or experiential culture rather than oppose or surpass it. You, with its floating abstractions that might be eyes or lips and it’s slow-motion fractals and elegant repetitions, used technology as opposed to allowing itself to be used by it.

The new DundeeC Contemporary Arts show is deftly handled by curator Graham Domke, who worked with Dove on the group show The Associates in 2009 and who had been in discussions with Dove about a solo presentation in the gallery where she had worked and, as a mature artist, developed significant prints. It begins with her watercolours and collages. Here, the way Dove used improvisation and automatic drawings is set down beside her more deliberate paintings on linen and a series of small embroideries. A late, undated series of works that respond to the colour spectrum feel fresh in their saturated colour and intensity. An image of a hand holding a narrow brush whose long handle is the colours of the rainbow is an elegant summation of her work.

The cumulative effect of the main galleries, where 13 animations span 14 years of work, is to be immersed in the world on Dove’s terms. The films’ emphases are on cycles and repetitions, the rhythms of nature, the colour wheel, perhaps the Buddhist prayer wheel and again and again the simple rushing thrill of the bicycle. Similarly, like any number of electronic musicians, Dove was interested in field recordings: birdsong, the sound of the wind in the trees. She grew up in Jemimaville on the Black Isle and responded to the beauty of the Highlands without ever attempting to emulate their grandeur. Her touching animation Melodia brings to life a watercolour by her grandfather, making his trees dance in the breeze, his water ripple with hidden currents.

This is a world of perpetual and eternal motion, that paradoxically allows the viewer to suspend their own movement and become immersed. With its recurring images of hands and of legs in motion, Meaning in Action, made in 2013, now seems a sort of manifesto for Dove, as much as such a subtle, open and generous artist might ever be said to have a manifesto. It is a film about how meaning is made in movement: about how the world is perceived not just by our observations of it, but by the way we move through it. But this also might be understood in the extended sense. Dove, as an artist and as a person, always seemed as if she had made choices with grace: she had a love of simple things like colour and rhythm that was not in the least simplistic; and she engageed with nature both in her allotment on the banks of the Kelvin and in a body of work that referred to landscape, flora and botanical medicine. Her art remained true, without ever staying still; true to the principles of collaboration, to improvisation and to finding meaning in the world around her. To spend time with her work is to recognise her unique voice and achievement: life as a kind of irrepressible internal rhythm, as well as an external world of colour, music, birdsong, woodland and the sky above. n

Until 20 November