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In The Studio With Kate Dunn: The Artist Drawing On Multi-Sensory Experiences To Change How We Engage With Art

This year we launched Whistles Connects, a new series that aims to support emerging creatives, which continually encourages us to look out for contemporary artists who are pushing the boundaries and doing something different.

So when one of our team took up a painting course and came across artist and teacher Kate Dunn, we were eager to find a way to collaborate. Drawing on themes of renaissance, rave, light and sacred space, Kate builds on multi-sensory experiences using sight-specific installation and UV-reactive materials. Her engaging approach and vivid use of colour felt like the perfect fit for our Christmas windows, so we asked Kate to create prints for a series of stars for us to display. We also took the chance to photograph and interview her in her London studio, where we chatted about everything from her vigorous art training and how her work has progressed, to the role of music in creating and her advice for other emerging artists.

First thing’s first, can you tell us about your background? How did you get into art?

I’m an only child so I was always keeping myself busy drawing. I wanted to be a shoe designer when I was 7 or 8, like a Groovy Chick, Bang On The Door style designer. Remember that? Funky, chunky high heels. Then as I got older, I got really into drawing people and did art all throughout school. I later did my foundation at Central Saint Martins in London and while I was there, I felt my technical skills weren’t good enough. I struggled with the lack of technical teaching so I went and studied in Florence at the Florence Academy of Art, which is a 19th century school.

“I wanted to be a shoe designer when I was 7 or 8 – like a Groovy Chick, Bang On The Door style. Remember that? Funky, chunky high heels.”

I always thought I’d make figurative art. Yet when I left Florence, and I’d have people come and sit for me in my studio, I just found that I was so conditioned into a specific way of making a portrait that I wasn’t very active in the process. I couldn’t really branch out of that. I ended up gradually removing the sitter, then removing the reference image and working with imagined figurative forms. Eventually I found myself more interested in what the colours and the paint were doing than an image necessarily being the main focus. In a funny way, I do feel that a lot of my work is still very much about the body and the body’s presence through the marks, as opposed to an actual figurative motif as such.

“I am interested in the ways that we worship and the idea of the communal body versus the individual body.”
How would you describe your work, to those who are new to it?

I would say that the work that I have been making over the last two years is essentially altarpieces. I look at a lot of different themes within my work but really, I’m interested in the ways that we worship and the idea of the communal body versus the individual body. I also work thinking about things like renaissance, rave, light and sacred space.

I’m interested in how we engage with art as well as making it. So often when I have an exhibition, it’s highly controlled and I will involve a multisensory installation where I work with producers who will make specific tracks. There’s usually three stages to it. The first stage of the painting is in full gallery light and the second stage goes into the UV light, where I have pigments that are UV reactive, including a pigment that charges from UV light. Then the last stage will be in the darkness and here, the pigment that’s charged will glow. At this point the only light in the room will be coming from the paintings themselves.

And is that something you're thinking about already early on when creating? Or does it sort of come together later?

When I initially started using those materials, it was really odd, because you’re essentially making three paintings in one. So you’re somewhat aware of certain aspects that you want to exist in the final stage, however a lot of my work is not planned. It’s very much about this constant, reactive process and I am always reacting to the last mark I’ve put down. It’s hard for me to necessarily know what the paintings are going to look like. I’ve worked in studios where it was summer when I was starting this work it was the height of summer, so I’d have to stay at the studio until 11pm to see what the pieces looked like in darkness. Then I’d work in pitch black surrounded by pots of glowing paint. Yet with some of them, it was only revealed to me when I exhibited them within the warehouse or gallery space. I didn’t know what they were going to look like before that.

How has your art changed over time?

I started making altarpieces during my masters. Originally, I was more concerned with the structures to explore the history of art and architecture connected to that shape. I was really thinking about a lot of the Romanesque arches that I had encountered whilst in Florence. I was also interested in how people read into them because of the shapes themselves.

Then during lockdown, I had this idea that I wanted to make a painting that was its own light source. I didn’t know what that would look like or what that meant but I knew it was something I was interested in. I’d also been thinking a lot about this idea of exhibition as medium as opposed to the painting, sculpture or installation being the medium. This really tied into this idea of trying to engage active looking from the viewer. That’s when I started exploring all these different mediums and getting lights and music in. Music is, in a way, one of the most accessible art forms that we have in terms of communication and creates a very specific tone.

“Music is, in a way, one of the most accessible art forms that we have in terms of communication and creates a very specific tone.”
So you’ve started to touch on this whilst we’re talking but how do you normally find inspiration for your artwork?

I think that’s a really good question to ask an artist in 2022. I think a lot of us now are super aware of our relationship with visual art and images having drastically changed even in the last 10 years. I would say that with each body of work, my inspiration comes from a different place. I’m working on a new show and you can see some of the inspiration in the photos we’ve taken in the studio today. I’ve been looking at a lot of patterns and fabric for this work. Whereas for my previous body of work, I looked at a lot of big trance festivals. I was also delving into archives of imagery from the late 80s at parties, and equally, I’m always looking at Renaissance images and paintings. I’ll also make specific playlists for every body of work that I make and use them to fire me up when I need it. There was one day when I was making this light show where I listened to hours of trance non-stop. By the end of it, I actually felt a bit nauseous because it was almost too much. Yet I kind of liked that.

“I’ll also make specific playlists for every body of work that I make. I will use it to fire me up when I need it.”
You’ve just mentioned the role music plays in your work, can you tell us more?

It changes as each body of work has its own playlist. Often the music will guide me into new bodies of work as well. I grew up in a very musical household. My dad has been in bands and has been playing music my whole life. At the moment whilst working I am obsessed with Silent Shout by The Knife. I can’t stop listening to it. It has a certain polish but doesn’t feel completely polished. I am also listening to The Dreaming by Kate Bush a lot in the studio. It’s so weird! It feels like you’re at art school and you’ve walked into a random studio one night and there’s a creature doing a strange performance. When I am listening to it, I feel like I am there.

You also teach art classes in London. What is one of the best things about being able to share your craft with others and guide them?

I think if I was in the studio all the time, my work would be stuck within an echo chamber of itself. When you’re teaching, you’re exposed to so much and your brain is forced to be constantly reacting. As an artist, you have to be really conscious of keeping people around you where you can have genuine, beautiful, indulgent conversations. When you’re teaching, it’s so much about the process, the materials, the ideas, and pushing and challenging others. It feels like an incredible luxury to be able to engage with students doing that on a regular basis.

What are some of the biggest challenges with being an artist today?

It’s been said before but I think for all of us, we are hyper-aware of Instagram. It’s a genuine challenge to remove it from the studio and I wonder whether that can even happen now. I noticed that within my own work, I originally wanted to make pieces that were loud and kind of shouted for attention. Now I find myself moving in a somewhat different direction. I think in some ways that is a response of me trying not to make work that exists for the screen. I also think the challenge is that we start to value product over process. For so many artists, the process is the spiritual part of what you do and I wonder how much of that gets lost today.

“For so many artists, the process is the spiritual part of what you do and I wonder how much of that gets lost today.”
Whose work has influenced you the most? And whose work do you admire today?

In terms of my peers that I’m in constant dialogue with, there’s Robert Cooper. We send each other our work and go on long walks to talk about our practices. Also a friend of mine called Tom Worsfold, who’s also a tutor at City & Guilds, we have a really great dialogue as well. He thinks in a way that’s very different to me, which I thoroughly enjoy.

Outside of my peers, I love Jadé Fadojutimi. I saw her work when I was about to start my MA and I remember thinking and feeling “this is it.” It’s that moment you don’t really have a word for, you just feel something immediately when you stand in front of the work. Also I’ll always love Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Joan Mitchell.

How do you want your work to make people feel? Or see things differently?

I don’t want my work to make people feel anything specific necessarily. What I do want, or what I’m trying to avoid, is perhaps passivity, or a passive response. I would rather someone hated my work than felt indifferent to it. I think what I’m actively looking for is to create an experience for the viewer where they become aware of themselves in the space, aware of themselves in communication or aware of themselves in contact with the work. That’s the ideal relationship I’m looking for.

“I don’t want my work to make people feel anything specific. What I do want, or what I’m trying to avoid, is perhaps passivity, or a passive response.”
There’s lots of notes and writing pinned around your studio. Is this a way you’ve always worked? What’s the significance of making these?

When I was studying, I think I came out with nine notebooks at the end of a 12 month course. There were no sketches in there, it was just writing. I think I’ve actually always been that person. I didn’t realise it so much but when I looked back on Florence, I would make little notes all the time. It’s another way to challenge myself about my work – I can go round in circles in my head and being a visual person, I need to externalise. Literally seeing the words in front of me allows me to then respond in that way.

This year you’ve collaborated with us to create our Christmas window displays. Can you talk us through the process and the way you came to choose the palette and overall look?

It was interesting for me working in this way because you had quite a specific idea in terms of the stars for the windows – these sculptural forms that you knew you wanted to make. Therefore it was about me designing work that would then be printed onto them. When I started, I knew I wanted to continue with these fluorescent bright palettes that I’ve been using over the last few years and I was also responding to the palettes around your latest collection, as well as the shoots that you were doing for that.

It was a refreshing process. There’s a lot that goes into each painting in terms of how I reflect on it, and how I contextualise and situate it. So when I was making these works, it was really interesting for me to allow complete play. In some ways it took me back to being a student, and the ways in which you’re constantly exploring.

“In some ways it took me back to being a student, and the ways in which you’re constantly exploring.”
Finally, what would your advice be for those looking to pursue a career in art?

Something I always say to students is it’s not your job to like it, it’s your job to be interested in it. Genuinely interested. Hopefully you’ll get excited too. It isn’t always giddy excitement either, as it can be more of a deep, obsessive excitement at times. Also it’s important to know it’s always about the work. In our current climate, it’s easy to confuse what or who you’re doing it for and we live in such a visual world. Being a visual artist is very different to what it was 30 years ago but the work has to come first. Also, you will need some serious perseverance. You’ll have moments where you’re noticed and that will be great and then you’ll have moments where you’re not, but that can also be great for your practice. It can be really difficult but know you’re on the right path if the work is important to you.

Words by Helena Stocks
Photography by Kasia Bobula

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