Connecting women with Nature, and imaging femininity in its subliminal and enigmatic aspects places Kate Debbo in a imperious narrative where art and femininism become a powerful match. We visited Kate’s brand new studio in Margaret River in the pre-pandemic days to talk about her artistic journey and her insight on the future of art.
From Durban to the world, Kate Debbo decided a few years ago to live and work with her family in the Australian Southwest. Known by her large-scale paintings, emphasizing colour and texture as part of her liberal and playful approach to life and art, Kate is excited to present her work to the local community and share her creative vision.
Kate Debbo, have you always painted large paintings?
Not necessarily. While at art school, I could see where I was heading as I enjoyed to play with it. I used to paint smaller works though. I was drawn to more figurative pieces, but it was always in a smaller scale, textured and very loose.
Were they smaller because of its cost prohibitive when you were a student?
I just thought it wasn’t an option. I’ve still done a few larger works at the time that were more abstract, and I really liked it. So maybe that’s why today I do such large art works.
Where did you study?
Kwazulu-Natal Technikom in Durban, and I studied for one and half years. It was a studio based school and a very technical degree. I was a bit disillusioned as it wasn’t my romantic notion of art school. I was very young, and I guess I wasn’t ready for that commitment.
Do you think the passage through art school was beneficial for your work?
Definitely. I learnt how wonderful is to be submerged in your field 150% of all the time, and the focus you’re supposed to have, and the lack of distraction. And do it everyday , that’s how you learn. Lecturers would come in and give you a few pointers, but they can’t teach you how to paint. We were thrown into the studio and just paint. Having your fellow friends that are studying with you, and then build that community of work that you can bounce off each other.
And it was what you were exposed to, like exhibitions openings?
Yes, and that’s how you learn, following other artists and how they work, seeing them in action, and you get to know their circles and networking. It was a huge part of it.
How do you start your day when it comes to painting?
I procrastinate a lot. I’m petrified of a new work. If its blank, I like it as I can see the building and the anticipation of going in there and making the first mark. It is really exciting, but I’m tempted to put it off. I walk in the forest with my dog to clear my mind and find my opening. I found I paint better after 11am, and then I just focus on it. I tend to paint something very solid to get rid of the white first. Sometimes I tape my brushes onto a long stick so I remove myself from the piece, just throw some paint at it and just smear all together, as most of the time I don’t have a structured plan of what I’m going to do.
One of the main elements that stands out in your paintings is the way you work the colour. Where does your sense of colour come from?
I’m a little bit of a sponge. Sometimes I can be really drawn to some greens that I saw while walking in the forest, or seeing a blue or orange in someone’s shirt, and I will be mixing all and remembering where I saw them before.
At the end of the day , the idea behind the work is really similar: that it is life. It doesn’t need to be that serious, it is about the twist in the tail, that being playful, imaginative, and fantastical, and it is probably my view of life coming to art.
Not so much from art school and art theory?
I don’t think so. I love colour. I’m giving some art classes at the moment for adults and kids, and people don’t come to me because they think I might teach them an amazing technical skill. I don’t paint like that. People come to me because they can learn how to splash, specially the adults which is awesome, how can I facilitate loosening people up, and some people need more than others. One of the things they ask me was if we were going to learn about the colour wheel, and I said no because I didn’t learn about colour like that. I can show colour theory books with the colour wheel, but it would be so far from where I would like my students to start. I want them to learn how to play with paint and colour.
Amy Sillman talks often about colour and the different weight of colour, and how artists can see the difference of two similar colours.
Definitely, because you’ll learn through practice. I’m learning the difference between a beautiful handmade colour from a boutique art store, and it is lovely to try them out, and the colours are so intense and so different.
How do you manipulate the colour that you are working on?
More recently, I started to use palette knives as I’ve been mixing a lot of colour on the palette and then transferring onto the canvas. But a lot of the time I just squeeze the tube straight onto the canvas two colours that I like together, and that I know they will work together. I finger paint a lot too.
Straight oil onto the canvas, no mediums?
I do use medium, but not all the time. Depending on the texture that I want to achieve. At the moment I use cold wax, because that gives a lovely thick texture, and makes it dry quite quickly.
Do you put the canvas on the floor and work from there?
Sometimes, but mainly on a stretcher on the floor. Another times I use a kind of a wood structure like an easel, or stretch the canvas on the wall.
Would you say its the visual response to colour or its the emotional response to colour that comes first?
There is a combination. When I go through something difficult or the harder the world is, the happier I want to paint, so I will be emotionally drawn to more brighter colours. It depends.
Going back to Amy Sillman, she also talks about how at the end of the day having buckets full of grey-green slop from experimenting and getting wrong, and how easy you can get it wrong with oil paint.
Yes, and scrapping all off. Which is great when you have some concept on how the colours are going to work together, so you don’t go too wrong. But for a beginner it is really expensive and devastating. I waste so much paint.
Do you like dirty colour?
Yes. I think it is very feminine. For me it is layered and complex, beautiful and ugly. That’s what lies inside a human being, specially a women. Dirty colour is good.
Do you have any favourite colour?
Pink. I change it all the time. This week is definitely pink, and it has been for quite sometime.
In this book Chromophilia, all the colours have a chapter except pink, only a few paragraphs in the end of red. It was such an important colour for Philip Guston, and he owned it as a colour.
Pink is punk! It flips any boring painting into something very exciting. It lifts everything.
When looking to your Stacks, they look more rigid than other works like Blue Horse No.1, where seems more fluid and loose.
They are different works. The Stacks are the most structured work I have. They work, so I’ll do them more often which gives me a balance as an artist. If this is my career, my work, I have to have that safety net. But saying that, its also the catch of the more commercial work, it gets more rigid and that comes across because that’s what I’m putting down. I’m not free. I like doing them because of that feeling of control, that’s what I produce. The more abstract work and florals, the pieces that look like a 2 year old did it, it is way harder. It requires much more emotional input, alone time, frustration and tears. I labour more time over those art works than the structured ones, and for me that’s more real.
We also notice your backgrounds are rich in texture. As you mentioned before starting your work with a solid mark, is that a way to expand your space on the surface?
Yes, it opens it up endlessly. Breaks your fear down, opens me up. I like having a terrible painting that I can make something beautiful out of a mess, and that’s when I get excited going through the phase of hating it so much, and then just keep pushing and suddenly just pops, and takes away the fear. Every artist understands that feeling “oh it’s working!” or “hate it!”, because you invest so much into it.
I can live with a painting for six months and go “That’s the best art work I ever made!”, and then wake up the other day and think “What the hell I was thinking!”, it’s so wrong. Often I regret pieces in the gallery that go up, and I feel like killing it. I end up asking to take down the piece as it wasn’t ready to go up.
Jeffrey Smart got into trouble many years ago, as he retouched one of his paintings that was in exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and opened a big debate about if the artist still owns the artwork, so he could still retouched it or not.
Andy Warhol said “Just make art, and send art into the world because it’s not for you, it is for other people.” Maybe that’s what I should focused on. I don’t have to love every single piece of art I make. Just let it go and what happens beyond my studio walls is not mine anymore, and belongs to the world now. But it is hard to do that.
Part of your art making process is to make and re-make, paint and re-paint. Is that why your work has such a dense textural nature to it?
Yes. All the history underneath is important. Some of the paintings are not evolutions of the same painting. They are like a completely different painting. And sometimes the work wouldn’t be half as nice if it didn’t have that background, that bump that comes from another paint. Makes me think that they have a life of their own, and they want to be what they want to be in the end of the day. And I have less control that I imagine. Which is a good lesson for life, you think you are in control and sometimes things just unfold. It is part of life.
Art is one of the ways you can work through that, and it is a safe environment to do it.
We are therapists as artists. I start to feel weird and cranky if I stop painting. I realise when I’m painting I’m really happy.
Another constant in your work are flowers as a subject matter.
Subject matter for me is a means to an end. Specially the flowers as a way of putting paint on the canvas, and giving the paint form. That is why they get so textural. They are not real flowers. They are flowers that come to my head. I don’t look for them they just pop out. There are some flowers that are more structured. I’ve been working on some flowers in vases.
It is like a still life?
It is a domestic theme. When I talk about my horses and that notion of being a mum and balancing this crazy part of my life that wants to live on the top of a mountain, and just be painting all the time, but you can’t do this all the time. On the other hand, the flowers in the vase are a symbol of domesticity and an old fashion tradition.
When looking at a vase of flowers as a theme that has been painted in the past, do you consciously try to do a more contemporary version of it?
That is my take on it. The vase of flowers that I paint is very different from the 18th century vase of flowers. But at the same time it is the same thing, the same feeling.
There is a playfulness and a naivety to your work. Is that the way you see your paintings engaging with the viewers imagination, as you say?
I think it is. This is the best way to convey those elements of myself to other people through colour and the playfulness. If there was another way, I would have gone to do drama or be a public speaker.
When you work on your cheetahs do you carry your relationship with Africa?
It definitely comes out when I’m working. At the time when I painte the first cheetahs, my husband Ant had gone to South Africa, and I was feeling a bit upset because he was there and I was here and couldn’t join him. Also, my uncle shot a cheetah when he was younger. He was a policeman and this cheetah was rampaging a township, and he had to kill it for safety. He used to have the skin of the cheetah up on the wall in his house. It was really fascinating to me, but quite disturbing at the same time to think that was a dead cheetah. So I just brought it out and back to life. It was only a memory that came up, and there it is living on my painting.
So the memory and imagination that you’re always drawn to start your work comes mainly from experiences?
Yes. The horses come from a childhood memory. I’m not a horse rider, but when I was young I went with my mum, who is Danish, to Denmark. I went on those carousel horses, and that memory stayed with me. The horses come from there. It is always more magical when you’re young, it is a nostalgic look to that. And then they just evolved into the fact that I love the structure of them, with their strong forms, within the landscape or with nothingness. We are the landscape and we’re all connected somehow, we’re the object on the table and in the end we all come together. Its that connection of how we are everything and how everything is us.
Is this also a manner of you expressing your cross-cultural experiences?
Yes. Here I am in a strange twisty place. Never imagine that I would live in Australia. I’m constantly surprised that I’m an African in Australia. So maybe that’s part of it. I also like the cheesiness of it, like the zebra for example. I like the contrast of the pattern of their skin with a really flat background. I have a piece that I’m working at the moment in the studio that has a few birds, and those are Australian birds. They mix well with the flowers and the horses, which is the first time that had happened.
“ I love an unfinished piece, I love the scribble. It is difficult to know when to call it!”
Josef Albers, one of the living members from Bauhaus, said “The process of making and looking at art is more important than the finished product.” You say often that “The magic is in the making.”
Yes, for sure. I love an unfinished piece, I love the scribble. It is difficult to know when to call it. Also when I work in series I don’t finish one of them and move forward. I jump between series. Now I’m doing boats because I went on holiday to Rottnest Island, and that was my absorption after that. It was a first holiday in a long time, it had a big impact on me.
We often ask the artists we interview about if there is a need to justify their work.
There is a value in it. I feel the more I talk about my work, the more people value it because I’m valuing it more. I don’t intellectualise anything until I need to talk about my work, like I’m doing with you now. Gives me direction and helps to open up about it. Every artist is different. A more conceptual artist needs to talk about his work to bring people in. Sometimes this is not so universal. I get judged a lot because of the playfulness and the naive nature of my painting, as people don’t understand. In those situations I feel the need to justify my work.
Do you mind people trying to demystify your work and raise questions?
No, I don’t mind people trying to demystify my work, but I don’t think my paintings need to raise questions. Is more an experience to be enjoyed. If it does raise questions I would be happy, as it is not an empty work. It says a lot about being a woman today, there is a strong feminine element to it that sometimes I wish it wasn’t there. I feel it could have a bit more testosterone.
Because I work everyday and sometimes I think how can I bring up a new work everyday? The answer is in the previous work. So, when I look into the previous work it appears to me to be to “girlie”. But that’s who I am, and I can’t change that.
And how important it is the intimacy between the artwork and the viewer?
That is a huge part of my work that gets lost on platforms like Instagram. I think for a lot of artists as well, not only myself. For me, a big part of that relationship between the painting and the viewer is capturing and understanding those layers, and you can only do that when you see it closely. Although I like to see my work in a smaller scale, but then you can’t really see the texture and other details of it.
Do you have any artists that you particularly look at?
Seth Wiggly, without a doubt. I love his scribble and poetic art making. Grace Hartigan and the American expressionists. I love Schiele and his line work. Matisse, is also one of my colour favourite artists. Tracey Emin for her controversy, her drawings and how she brings herself to the work. When I lived in London, I saw an exhibition at the Tate with Rothko and that was just mind blowing, it was pouring on me with the size of his work and the colour.
Would you take yourself to see art?
Oh yes with no further doubt. That is what I lack in here and feel isolated from. I would go to Tate Modern quite often, and one of the great experiences was to climb to the top of Louise Bourgois Spider, the rawness of it was amazing.
What about South African artists who have inspired you?
I love William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas. Ryan Hewett, he does portraits of politicians and he is a very successful artist, and some other of his contemporary artists are also doing amazing abstract and digital work.
Is Susan Rothenberg one of your masters?
Definitely, I love her work and she is a massive inspiration. I studied her work and learn lots. Found it particularly interesting her composition, when she brings her arm into work, and the simplicity. Joan Mitchell is another artist that I admire, she is the “colour queen”!
You and your family have been living in the Southwest for a while now. Was that the time you joined The Margaret River Gallery?
Yes and no. At the time when we moved here, I wasn’t painting full-time. I only started painting professionally in 2015, and that’s when I joined the Margaret River Gallery. I feel pretty lucky to be doing that, and I have a very supportive family. Ant built the studio and I couldn’t do it without that.
You also have your works in art galleries over East, in Melbourne.
I did some art fairs in Melbourne which were very successful for me and my work. Not only financially, where I could cover my initial investment, but it was specially great for exposure and to make contacts with local art galleries. And things just grew up from then. I tried Sydney Art Fair, but it wasn’t so successful.
So Melbourne is your place?
Yes. I can see the demographics on Instagram, and we can see where the followers come from, and a lot of them are from Melbourne, a bit from Sydney, and not many from Perth, as I have never done any exhibition there.
Would that be in your future plans to exhibit in Perth?
I was supposed to have an exhibition at the Juniper Art Gallery in the Perth Hills last April, that’s been postponed to next July. So I’ve been working for that show.
It will be your premiere in Perth. How did that happen?
They contacted me. They’ve been looking at my work through my Instagram page, and a work I sell from Margaret River Gallery, and they saw it and really liked it.
With the prospect of the Margaret River Gallery closing – to have that potentially looming over you – the roll that the Instagram plays in your work, the gallery in Melbourne, and now the virus. What is the effect of all these on your work at the moment?
In terms of my practice nothing has change. I go to the studio everyday, I put my head down and start making some paintings. So, I don’t think nothing will change in that regard. In terms of sales, yes! I think we are going to feel the impact like everyone else. The gallery that I’m based with in Melbourne just informed me that they are doing some virtual tours of the gallery to pump their website and Instagram page. But I think it is good and positive to have a new spin on it. Why not?
There are any more projects within the gallery?
There is an exhibition called Power, Place and Desire at the Margaret River Gallery, a small group show. I’m doing some figurative work of women, one is called Pin-ups, and the other it is a portrait of me painted on a 1950’s wall paper. Originally I was nude, but lately I decided to cover with a bikini and its called Off To The Shops. The work is about women in all their shapes and glory, and little nudes.
You can see Kate’s work for Power, Place and Desire online at the gallery .
It is a very contemporary subject, body positivity.
Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and comparing different bodies like myself as an adult and my teenage daughter. It is about you seeing your body as a crown.
Thank you Kate.