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GAIL CATLIN
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa
Read more about Liquid Crystal

Gail Catlin
An impressionistic Portrait by Lin Sampson

I first met Gail in 1982. At that time she lived in a house that overlooked the opaline stretch of water which is the Cape Town Reservoir. It was a house out of a Tennessee Williams play, with large southern dimensions, blissful and at the same time ardent in that particular manner of Victorian architecture, a house made to withstand and endure. But I recall thinking that she did not seem a likely inhabitant of such a place. She seemed preoccupied and a little vague but she was beautifully dressed in a way that I – who also have a passion for clothes – could immediately relate to. She had on a silk jacket in a yolky yellow with a moon coloured short underneath that signed with sensuality and her skirt folded in such a way that when she bent or walked up a staircase it expanded to reveal a spectrum of faded Hibiscus colours. She seemed to be made of cellophane and her long etiolated fingers were see-through.

She appeared frail but also a little wild as if she had been in some way captured but was trying to get away. I sensed in her immediately a slightly truant disposition. There were lots of children around who had the vigour of young eels. One had just broken an ankle and forever after when I met her there would be a broken limb splintering away in the background. The main impression I carried away from that meeting was how, when surrounded by people, she managed to retain a manner of aloofness, as if in order to survive she had levitated a few meters above their heads. Also her eyes which were of a peaceful blue could change into an edgy almost indigo colour while you were looking at her. I noted in my book: ‘Her face is like a room that has been aired after being shut up for a while.’

She seemed even then to be provocatively beyond the reach of the rough, ill-polished lives of most people, someone purged of every commonplace instinct, unacquainted with malice or petty gossip. She had a way of looking at you in a very surprised way and giving a high tooting laugh. To me she seemed like a woman who had been inspired by experiences that were different and exciting. We were never great friends but over the years I would meet her and hear snatches of her life. She revealed her past as you might a pack of lyrical snapshots or small paintings in little shorts of pure indelible impression. She always said, ‘I abandoned me’. Years later she told me that she had started living along in a flat when she was twelve. ‘I was expelled from school and my father paid for me to live in a flat by myself. I shaved my eyebrows and smoked those little coloured Sobrani cigarettes with gold tips.’

At fifteen she set out on a pilgrimage through Africa with a ‘delightful old Swiss Count.’ which sounds like something out of the Madeline children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans. ‘He said he was going up through Africa and I said “Can I come along?”. He replied: “As long as you’re ready in three days.”’ Her father gave her five pounds and said, ‘You can go but you do not have my blessing.’ In Tanganyika they were thrown into jail for two months. When they were released the immigration officer took them to his house to bath and she vividly recalls his wife. ‘Her whole face had been burnt off. There was nothing of it, only gaping holes. He had found a job as far away from England as he could so she would not suffer the indignity of being stared at.’ She also told me that when they drove over the bridge at Tunduma there was a dog that had been cut in half and stuck on top of a broom stick.

Her verbal images could be as potent as those she painted.
I think I sensed in her passion but at the time I thought it was a passion she might inspire in others. She seemed like a woman who could bewitch and drive men to acts of madness. S I write this, more than twenty years later, I realise that I was encountering another type of passion. She was in the throes of developing an incendiary love for painting. She was almost entirely uneducated and had worked as a set builder and food stylist until one day she had decided to become a painter. ‘I literally sat at home with a rose in a little glass tumbler trying to draw it for weeks on end.’ She says. At this time she has been looking at the light out at Arniston on the East coast of Africa and had become traduced by the nacreous quality of sea shells and was convinced that here was another colour spectrum relating to the moon.

When she started talking about it her eyes changed blues at such an alarming rate she might have been connected to an unreliable electricity supply. Although I had come to interview her about sometime entirely different we returned to the subject over and over again, not in an egocentric way, but in the manner of someone who has a disease that will kill them in a few months cannot avoid the subject. I see her standing in the great hallway of that house with its flagstones and southern sun falling in bars across the floor. She is holding something up to the light and pointing and explaining and I am simply writing in my book “probably bats”.

She told me at that first meeting that she was off to the Royal College of Art and indeed showed me a weighty number of different coloured pearly clays that she intended taking with her and I imagined her in the Gothic gleam of London clutching these desert sands from Africa. She had applied to the Royal College of Art to do a post graduate course. At first they laughed at her but she went to see them and said, ‘Look you must understand I am passionate about this thing.’ It is to their credit that they took her seriously. Some years before she had started working with resins and fibreglass which if lit in a certain way can pick up prismatic qualities but only if used in a sculptural form.
‘I wanted to paint with them so when I was at the Royal College of Art in London I went to the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine and showed them these pearly surfaces and said, “How do I go about getting this? They said I should go back to my studio and put a little mirror on the window sill which would then catch a light beam and reflect it onto a black surface. It is the ancient method of reflecting light”.

Although Gail had achieved a fundamental prism, she needed help to take it further. The Imperial College put her in touch with a scientist at General Electric, a man called Dr Cyril Hilsum who had worked on the invention of the hologram. ‘He was in his seventies, brilliant and wonderful, and when he interviewed me he was wearing feathers. He said, “Come with me.” We got into his car and he had a set of buttons and he just went pum pum pum and programmed the car. We drove all the way to the General Electric factory and he didn’t touch the steering wheel or the brakes.’ This was back in 1982 and he had a fully computerised car.

It was a meeting that would radically change her life and dynamically forge a route along a road she had already begun to tramp. In the end it would lead her to the substance that lies dearest to her heart and which had been whirling round her imagination for a decade but – without a formal scientific training – kept slipping from her grasp like soap bubbles underfoot . Her quarry was liquid crystals a substance that has been around since the middle of the 19th century. There are numerous liquid crystalline materials. They fall into three main categories smetic (soap like, nematic (as in data displays and watches) and cholestric which produces colours that depend on temperature. She received a grant to work with the magical cholestric crystals and for ten years she co-operated with what she refers to with some reverence as ‘the scientists’. I had no idea what I was doing, I just made happy accident after happy accident. I would send them the sample and they would send it back to me explaining the scientific process.’

Slowly her acquaintance with the fugitive alchemy of ‘liquid crystals’ with its fleeting light-sensitive iridescence and its living response came to dominate her life. She began to understand more of its qualities and even anticipate its responses. She understood when to tease or tame, when to dominate or give rein. It was this powerful and magical relationship. It was liquid crystal that chartered her ups and downs, countered the baleful fragility of daily life and sometimes brought glory to her heart.
I did not know much about her painting. She was hardly ever seen at fashionable art functions. She seemed to disappear for years and years. Once I caught sight of her crossing the road, stepping out tentatively like a water bird and wearing lantern earrings that glittered with tiny burnished stones and a long scarf of oriental gauze that seemed soaked in mysterious pigments. She was a little like a character out of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’, mysterious and enticing, but someone who guarded her secrets like a cat. Whenever I saw her, she was in some stage of pregnancy. With her it seemed to be an almost chronic condition, and she carried it as you might a small deformity, such as a birthmark.

The big paradox with Gail always seemed that although there had been a signpost in her heart for most of her like with the world ‘artist’ written on it, she went on producing children. In all she had eight (one died). How did she exist as a mother and an artist? ‘The one drove the other. The more children I had – particularly when I was pregnant – the more obsessed I became by not being gobbled up by every body and losing my own individuality.’

When she was mentioned in the intimate environs of Cape Town it was often in relation to the birth of a new child. Less was known about her art because she never sought publicity, and Cape Town in any case, always had that provincial way of disregarding real talent. I do not think that she was adverse to publicity in the pretentious manner of some artists. She was simply puzzled by it and a journalist turning up at her door might find a child with a broken arm, and Gail’s complete inability to understand the first thing about marketing herself. Visitors would find her eyes resting on them intently. She was positioning them within her powerful imagination from where she could set about decoding them.

If she ever seemed self obsessed or distracted it was because of her art. She might be in the middle of doing a picture or just beginning one. Her necessity, which sometimes seemed like an indulgence, as she sifted through diets and therapies – and sometimes her body could let her down badly – was to keep strong, because she knew she must keep her vitality to continue painting. If she was to succeed as an artist, she needed to be solicitous of her needs and conserve her energy against marauding domesticity. ‘Do not for a minute thing that she is vague or disorganised,’ says a close friend, ‘she is extraordinary, managing a large family, always fresh, generous and available for friends. If she says she is going to be somewhere at a certain time she will. She is highly organised and she has always earned her own money.’

The great thing about acquaintanceships is that they need not be renewed. They exist unchanged through the years, so when I dropped in on her house in the Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth) valley outside Hermanus on the South East Coast of South Africa, it was as if the years between had vanished, and here she was with a new batch of children, a new husband, a new house which she seemed to have built herself stone for stone. It was a warm summer day and shields of light played against the trees, and we swam naked in the dam at the bottom of her garden. She had just been to some desert or other, and held a new accumulation of mineral rocks in her hand, gazing at them with awe. For a while she looked at me vacantly and often gave a high laugh, but once again her eyes had taken on that dangerous blue. A few weeks later I realised that she had been so fixated by my white legs and red sandals that she had done a painting of them.

I went down to see the painting before it was sent to the client in Germany, and was interested to notice that above my red shoes some great hawk-like creature was eating into my flesh. Was it an artistic prerogative, I wondered, to gain purchase of another’s soul by means of a pair of red shoes. (See Plate 10.)

It might have been a circuitous route, and indeed the liquid crystal medium seemed a crafty ally when it came to confronting the variety of needs accumulated within the human psyche, or even the chaos of nature, but she had managed to scythe into my personal landscape with an almost medical precision and this, like everything in her life, seemed a bit magical.

If my sketch of her is blurry then it is because writers, too, need the technical advantage of impressionism. I do not know the names of her husbands or her children or even how old she is. She has always seemed like someone who has sprung both from the mythical and natural worlds, silky-winged and ethereal, but with a frenzied vigour that makes her a grand painter.

by Lin Sampson


Liquid Crystal,
And the Magic time of Alchemy

As an artist Gail Catlin was always drawn to the kind of experiment and innovation which would crystallise her impressions of nature with greater fidelity, and pin down the most elusive of nuances, the most intangible subtleties. As a lover of landscapes one of her besetting preoccupations had always been light, and in 1982, she spent a few months at a studio in Arniston, a small fisherman’s village on the Cape coast, where she observed the sea, the rise and fall of the tides, and the shifting atmospheric effects playing over the ocean. It seemed to her that the traditional media of oil paint, acrylics and watercolour could no longer do justice to her vision. As she worked on nocturnes and crepuscules, her dissatisfaction augmented, and on her strolls along the beach where she examined the silvery, nacreous interior of shells like mother-of-pearl, she realised that it was precisely this sheeny, reflective quality that she wished to emulate. It also occurred to her that there might be another colour spectrum beside the one that we are accustomed to, a colour spectrum related to the moon rather than the sun, and that if she could discover this, and encapsulate it in paint, it would endow her work with far greater veracity, vigour and strength.

It was at this turning point in her career, that Gail received news that she had been accepted as an M.A. student at the Royal College of Art in London. As Gail had never completed her schooling, and possessed no academic credentials whatsoever, she had filed her application with scant hope of acceptance. This unforeseen opportunity, which descended like a bolt from the blue, filled her with joy and trepidation. Would she be equal to the task? On arrival in London, her fears were soon allayed, and the year of study more than fulfilled her every hope: it proved catalytic, completely transforming both her life and her art. Gail speaks with effusive nostalgic affection of her Royal College days, and continually dwells on the debt of gratitude she owes to the institution, and, more particularly to Professor Peter de Francia and Doctor John Golding, the distinguished art historian, who cavalierly waived the rules, and admitted Gail purely on the strength of their admiration for the body of work she had submitted to them.

The Royal College provided a permissive and intellectually invigorating environment. Gail’s tutors were not desiccated, blinkered pedagogues: on the contrary they proved astonishingly open-minded, flexible and receptive. As many of them were practising artists themselves, there was an immediate spark of mutual affinity, understanding and warmth. Despite her ringing laughter, twinkling eyes and infectious sense of mischief and fun, Gail is a shy, self-deprecatory personality, and at first she was diffident about revealing her ambitions, as they seemed to her so utterly unorthodox, she feared the Royal college would dismiss her as a deluded misfit, a ‘loopy, wacky lady’ to use her own words. However when she confided her plans to discover the lunar colour spectrum, and thus supplement her palette with a new range of colours which would approximate more closely to the fading, light effects she observed after sunset and during stormy weather, the College not only understood, it also provided unstinting moral and practical support. Her teachers never imposed alien artistic notions upon her. They were not prescriptive, instead they fostered what was innate within her, actively encouraged her to experiment and innovate, and pulled every string they could in order to open doors for her, and provide the entrée into both the artistic and scientific worlds.

Her tutors directed her for the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. There she outlined her goals to the experts, explaining that what she wanted to capture in paint was something akin to the fluid, mobile quality of he dark, striated colours you glimpse in the shallow pools of water that gather on tarmac roads after the rain, and which continually waver and alternate in tit, fluctuating from dark to light, from glossy to matt. The scientists advised Gail to use liquid crystal on a black surface, and this was her first introduction to the scientific invention that would later become her principle medium, and dominate her life. As the technological applications of liquid crystal have only been discovered over the past twenty years, and as it became the vehicle which brought Gail’s art to mature fruition, and intensified its expressive power, it is essential that the reader know precisely what it is.

The actual formula for creating liquid crystal remains a closely guarded industrial secret. However the substance was originally derived from the cholesterol in sheep’s brains. Scientists were able to chemically simulate it and apply it to space research. It is a highly sensitive material. Physically it is a white liquid, with the consistency of thick custard, and it only bears a resemblance to crystal as we know it, after it has been applied and allowed to set for approximately twenty-four hours, after which it becomes rock-hard and translucent. In order to protect it, the solidified liquid crystal is always coated in a scientifically formulated resin.

Liquid crystal refracts light, and when it is used to optimum effect, it functions life a perfectly cut and faceted diamond, and picks up the light, breaks it down into the various colours of the spectrum and reflects them with unrivalled brilliance and clarity. Put simply, it functions exactly like a prism, except that it does not diminish either the intensity of the colour, nor the pristine radiance of the light.

The story of Gail’s involvement with liquid crystal is a long and complex saga charged with all the drama and reversals of fortune the term implies. When she first started working with the material, Gail could only dimly intuit the vast range of artistic possibilities it might open for her, and it was only after six years of constant, but passionately absorbing experiment, that she was able to control the medium and deploy it in a calculated way t obtain certain specific, pre-planned results. However, although the artist attained a far more intimate familiarity with liquid crystal, and grasped many of its properties and behavioural patterns, complete understanding eluded her, and her process of discovery remains an ongoing odyssey, as the medium continually reveals new characteristics that extend its artistic scope, and thus perpetually amplify the range of Gail’s creative expression. The ardour with which Gail reminisces about this interminable trial-period of research and assay, reveals that she did not find it in the least dry, clinical or sterile. Gail throws herself heart and soul into every endeavour, and for her the challenge assumed the romantic excitement of an adventure or quest. Gail is the kind of all or nothing individual who thrives on gamble and risk, and her commitment to this fraught and problematic enterprise was absolute and unremitting.

Following the leads provided by the Imperial College scientists, Gail experimented, and although she succeeded in obtaining a prismatic effect, and a strange, dusky light that she likes to think of as ‘black’, the resultant colour range possessed a darkling, penumbral quality, that rendered it far too dim and obscure to serve as a basis for her representation of African landscape and life, for the dark, inky colours bore no resemblance to the pale, bleached-out tones produced by the fierce, burning, sub-Saharan sun. In order to paint again, Gail had somehow to find a way out of this chromatic impasse.

When she described her predicament, the Imperial College referred her to Doctor Cyril Hilsum, the head scientist at General Electric, a charismatic figure of enormous charm, warmth and generosity, and a polymath and indefatigable innovator, who had formed part of the corps d’ elite who invented the hologram. When Gail met him, he was engaged in research directed at finding practical applications for liquid crystal, and he unhesitatingly imparted his knowledge of the substance to Gail, provided prodigal encouragement and arranged sponsorship to finance her attempts to develop liquid crystal in to a viable resource for artistic creation. Both he and the College were committed to fostering a fruitful, symbiotic interplay between art and science. To this end, Doctor Hilsum introduced Gail to other scientists who were exploring the potential of liquid crystal in a whole variety of different ways, by applying it to digital watches and contraception; exploiting it to detect wind tunnels in astronautic exploration; and utilising it as an instrument of medical diagnosis. Gail was enthusiastically welcomed into this inner sanctum of recondite erudition, and soon consolidated warm friendships with these technocrats who were to become her colleagues and collaborators. Her rapport with Doctor Hilsum was particularly developed, as his daunting intellectual accomplishments went hand in hand with a streak of madcap eccentricity and prankishness which immediately dissolved formality and pretension, and endeared him to Gil who admired his scholarly eminence and relished his whimsical tomfoolery.

At the time Gail was conducting her researched, liquid crystal was still in its infancy, and the whole field was largely terra incognita. Only a handful of international scientists were engaged in the scientific definition of the substance. Its properties had not been categorised and little had been codified. Doctor Hilsum acted as a mentor to Gail, and the two worked closely together as a team, with Doctor Hilsum cast in the role of analyst and evaluator, and Gail acting as experimenter. Doctor Hilsum supplied Gail with liquid crystal, and sent her specimens on all the latest by-products of the medium, so as to keep her abreast of current developments. She in turn, continually submitted samples of the surfaces she was creating in liquid crystal, so that Doctor Hilsum could analyse the results, and discover how Gail had obtained that particular surface, colour, texture or sheen. Gail had embarked on a voyage in the dark, and she relied entirely on Doctor Hilsum to dispel the mysteries and enigmas that beset her. Whenever she created a new effect, she had no inkling how on earth she had produced it. Through microscopic, scrutiny, Doctor Hilsum was able to furnish a scientific explanation for its origin, devise formulae, and thereby evolve a rudimentary methodology to systemise Gail’s investigations.

Gail’s studies at the Royal College proceeded at the same time as her involvement with liquid crystal. This was not an easy period for the artist who was not a free agent. With a husband and four children back home in South Africa, she was naturally rent by divided loyalties, so her studies – with the consent of the Royal College – were punctuated by frequent sojourns in the country of her birth, where she would produce a new body of work, and return to the College in order to evaluate it with her tutors. At this stage there was a complete hiatus between Gail’s exploratory research into liquid crystal, and the kind of avant-gardist art she was producing for submission to the Royal College. The two belonged to separate areas. Gail’s student art works never exploited the resources of liquid crystal, as she had not yet made sufficient advance in this medium to produce work which would meet stringent academic criteria. The liquid crystal paintings still remained tentative and inchoate, so what she executed for the Royal College were sculptural wall pieces and paintings in relief, executed in a wide variety of different media such as clay, natural dyes, pigments, resin, her own hand-made paper and thick films of cellophane which she treated in order to enliven them with silvery sheens and subtle colours. These extraordinary pale, frail and delicate creations are illustrated on Plates 24, 25, 26 and 27. although the College works are executed in other media, both they and the later liquid crystal paintings display a distinct air de familie. Both clearly reveal the artist’s obsession with superimposition, layering, encrustation and the creation of misty, semi-opaque, silvery and opalescent hues that act as veils, concealing and revealing as they gleam and glitter in response to the light. The goal of these early works, which appear so gossamery, as to verge on the immaterial, was to create a fragile, filamentary surface so sensitive that every shift in the level of light would generate change in their colour, sheen and degree of opacity. They thus clearly anticipate the vital, ‘living’ surfaces that, as we shall see, Gail finally managed to create later in her liquid crystal paintings. Metastasis – the ability of the art work to escape fixity, and constantly transform itself like a kaleidoscope – is Gail’s personal contribution to art, and it explains why her tutors often playfully described her, not as a painter, but as an alchemist devising arcane in the domain of magic and wizardry.

When she had completed her year of study at the Royal College, Gail returned to South Africa where she spent five further years experimenting with liquid crystal, constantly sending the results back to Doctor Hilsum. Although all sorts of happy accidents occurred, Gail battled to gain control of the medium and harness its full potential. However, struggle as she did, one insuperable obstacle continued to dog her, and that was her inability to wrest anything other than the same range of dark, nocturnal colours from the medium. Although Gail knew that liquid crystal possessed inexhaustible possibilities, she could not access them. The substance obstinately refused to yield the kind of palette she needed in order to evoke her chosen terrain, the sun-baked African plain. Despite this infuriatingly intractable deadlock, Gail never succumbed to discouragement. On the contrary, she had become so compulsively engrossed in her experiments, that he almost lost sight of the goals they were intended to serve. When the South African artist, Cecil Skotness, visited her, and told her that she was wasting her time, and that the moment had finally dawned when she must cease dissipating her energies on futile experiments, and start producing paintings again in oil on canvas, her reply was ‘Never! I will pursue my researches until I have solved my problems, and if I don’t, and never produce another painting for the rest of my life, I don’t care!’ This obdurate retort provides some insight into the passionate, obsessional nature of Gail’s temperament. Her contempt for compromise, and her tendency to extremity, her love of living on the edge.

Fortunately fluke provided a way out of the dead end. In 1985 Gail spent some time in Amsterdam copying old master drawings at the Rijks in the tradition of students perfecting their draftmanship. Before she departed Holland, Gail also bought a fresh supply of liquid crystal. The providential breakthrough occurred immediately on her return to South Africa. Gail was so excited at the prospect of resuming her experiments, that, in a serendipitous excess of zeal, instead of patiently preparing the black grounds she had employed in the past, Gail impatiently applied the liquid crystal to one of her Dutch drawings on white paper. Hitherto liquid crystal had never worked on a white surface, but on this occasion, it did. The entire drawing sprang into vibrant life, glowing with the soft, luminescent colours Gail had sought in vain for so long. However the quest was not yet over. Although Gail exulted in the fact that she had at last provided definitive proof that liquid crystal was capable of producing any colour, she still found herself in a quandary, for she possessed no idea whatsoever how she had triumphantly resolved her dilemma. As usual she was working as if blindfolded, and it was only after she sent the drawing to Doctor Hilsum that she received a rational explanation for what she had achieved. Analysis revealed that, as the paper had a slight ripple to it, the liquid rested on it at a diagonal tilt. This meant that the individual crystals were all aligned at oblique slants, instead of the same plane, which had always been the case before. The face that each crystal, instead of presenting a smooth, uniform, planar surface to the light as formerly, was placed at a slightly different inclination, greatly enhanced the crystal’s light refractive quality.

Doctor Hilsum made two discoveries which had crucial repercussions for Gail. Firstly, the brilliance with which the liquid crystal reflects the light, and refracts it into the chromatic elements that compose the spectrum, depends on how the liquid crystal is lain down upon the surface, and more especially the angles at which the various crystals are aligned relative to the light source. These two factors determine its response to the light, and dictate both the intensity of its luminosity, and the number of different directions in which it reflects the light. The basic principle is, that the more you angle your crystals, the more you enhance their ability to reflect the light in different directions. This, in turn, produces a greater degree of optical shimmer and chromatic contrast. As each crystal is a miniature prism, by angling them at different rakes, you set up a chromatic interplay of reflected beams of colour which cross each other’s path, interact, and combine to produce enormously complex variegations of hue.

The second significant finding was that the flat black surfaces upon which Gail had worked hitherto, made the crystal reflect intense, but subfusc, vespertine shades. The new white ground, by contrast, reflected softer, lighter colours. This by using white grounds in conjunction with black grounds, Gail was enabled to create any colour she desired. This liberation of Gail’s palette was the climactic excelsior that crowned six years of incessant endeavour, and to Gail it possessed all the ecstatic thrill of a miracle.

Experiment proceeded apace. An enormous amount of research – extending over this six year period was involved – not only in discovering how to release the full spectrum of colour, and discharge its full brilliance and intensity, but also in order to ensure that the resultant work of art would be stable and lasting. The six year period of experiment was just that, a period of experiment , and not a time of artistic production, for the artist was compelled to discard almost everything she created, as the work was still technically imperfect, and the problems posed by the medium seemingly irresoluble.

When Gail had eventually attained sufficient mastery to create a small nucleus of liquid crystal paintings that satisfied her rigorous critical standards, she contracted her sponsors who invited her to hold an exhibition. The exhibition ‘Vapour Drawings’ was held at the Linda Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1989, where it elicited critical commendation, and many purchases both local and international, although neither viewers nor critics were familiar with liquid crystals and its intricacies, as Gail is temperamentally averse to the kind of networking and self-publicity that has become such and unfortunate necessity in today’s art world. ‘Vapour Drawings’ was Gail’s last solo show. The exigencies of earning a living to provide for herself and her seven children, constrained her to sell her work as she produced it. It was only through the munificence of one of Gail’s dealers, Louis Schachat, that Gail was freed to create the array of new paintings you see at this exhibition. Louis Schachat not only purchased Gail’s work, in addition he paid her a generous retainer, relieving her from financial pressures, and granting her the time and freedom to produce this volume of work. Gail urged me to seize this opportunity to thank Louis from the bottom of her heart. Over the past few years, Gail’s work has begun to excite critical interest and command increasingly high prices. She is currently regarded as one of South Africa’s major artists. The very fact that this exhibition is being held at South African House, serves as an indication that her country has recognised her contribution, and acknowledged her stature as an artist. To Gail, it seems like a kind of apotheosis.

All Gail’s painting on the exhibition represent a marriage of modern technology in the form of liquid crystal, with traditional oil paints, water-colours and glazes. Virtually every work is partly executed in liquid crystal which is unique to Gail who – to our knowledge – is the first and only artist in the entire world to employ it.

Liquid crystal has enabled Gail to create paintings that are completely sui generis, as the medium is unique, and achieves effects that have never been realised before with quite such dazzling impact. Liquid crystal’s basic property is its extreme volatility, and keen responsiveness to even minimal changes in the intensity of both temperature and illumination which immediately excite dramatic colour shifts in the substance. This enables Gail to create a live surface that constantly transforms itself in endless permutations. Her paintings change ceaselessly, not only in response to the stimuli of different degrees of light and of temperature, but also in response to the viewer’s distance from the painting, and the angle o vision from which he regards it. As you move before the painting, so the effects of colour, light, reflection and sheen modulate continually.

Liquid crystal is an elusive medium that is both there and not there, both present and absent. When there is little light and little warmth, the liquid crystal becomes inert, and the painting stands on its own as a completely satisfactory aesthetic statement. At such times it presents and appearance similar to a conventional oil painting. However when the light and heat intensify, they activate the liquid crystal, and trigger off molecular change. This in turn, gives rise to luminary effects, so that the entire surface incandesces, as it breaks down and reflects the light. As liquid crystal continually responds to variations in temperature and light – factors which by their very nature change all the time – there is no halting this process. Nothing can arrest the fluctuations, nor fix the image which is compelled by chemical laws to transfigure itself without surcease. Thus the photographic reproductions contained within this book, cannot do justice to the work, for they suspend the chromatic and luminary events which perpetually enact themselves upon the picture surface.

To cite an example, let us examine Plate 14. As heat and light determine the colour of the owl’s plumage, this is a variable, not a constant. In the photographic reproduction the range of colours consists of very delicate, subtle and nuanced blues which vary in intensity from deep, shades to lighter paler tones. However the colour range changes all the time, and at moments the repertoire of blues will yield to a scale of greens or yellows.

Plate 14 is a fairly tonal, monochromatic study, but Plates 8 and Plate 6 present us with a far more rich and diverse range of colours which, too, fluctuate continually.
To produce such vibrant contrasts of colour, Gail may, for example, employ five different types of liquid crystals. Each of the five responds differently to temperature. The calorific starting point at which each of the five different liquid crystals types is activated - and thus enabled to trigger off colour change - differs from between eighteen degrees to thirty two degrees. Because they operate prismatically, all the crystals produce an identical colour range, but as different temperatures provide the catalyst that makes them respond to light with chromatic shifts, each of the five different liquid crystal types will produce different colours at the same temperature, so that, at any given moment in time, the crystals can produce the entire colour spectrum. Thus while one crystal will produce red at 18 degrees, another will produce blue, and another, green, and so on.

The process of laying down the different crystals necessitates complex and largely intuitive calculation. Gail not only has to mentally gauge how all these different nuances of colour are going to complement each other, she also has to take into account how the liquid crystal palette will interact harmoniously with the oil paints and water colours she also applies. Thus every painting is a matter of trial and error, and it is only produced after days of exhaustive experiment directed at adjusting and reconciling the various colours into a felicitous accord.

The liquid crystal which has established itself as the true basis of Gail's art, differs so dramatically from conventional media, it imposes highly idiosyncratic working methods. The actual physical process of painting is always preceded by the creation of a draft drawing which has to achieve complete accuracy, as it serves as Gail's blueprint when she commences executing the final work in liquid crystal. Everything has to be minutiously planned right down to the last detail, because, liquid crystal is akin to water-colour inasmuch as every mark is ineradicable, and every mistake irreversible. You cannot paint out passages that prompt dissatisfaction as you can when working with oils, as once the crystal has been laid down on the picture surface it cannot be shifted or erased.

Having completed the draft, Gail then tackles the picture surface. Usually she uses perspex as her base, although occasionally she employs paper, board or canvas. Because her liquid crystal painting is an ongoing creative process of discovery, there is no set formula. The painting is always improvised on an ad hoc basis, and it is the mood of the painting, that determines the artist's technique. Often Gail's working methods are spontaneous and random, designed to elicit the felicitous accident, the unforeseen result, the gifts of hazard and chance, but experiment always goes hand in hand with an element of control, as Gail has slowly become so familiar with the substance, that she can predict exactly how it will react, particularly when she relies on the usual methods she has evolved over time. Although the mode of application differs from painting to painting, there is a consistency of approach.
The liquid crystal is only used in selective areas of the painting, and never covers the entirety of the surface. In Plate 14, Gail applied the liquid crystal in two areas alone, the figurative sections of the painting depicting the owl and the two massive piled-up rocks. Gail lays the liquid crystal down with a brush on the transparent perspex picture surface. She then allows it to dry, harden and achieve translucency. Even when it has set, liquid crystal remains such an extraordinarily fragile and hypersensitive material that it can be ruined by contact with dust, chemicals and other paints, so Gail has to seal it by coating it in a layer of scientifically formulated resin.

Then comes what Gail terms 'the magic time of alchemy' when the artist starts her mark-making, applying traditional oil paints to both the front of the picture, i.e. the resin-coated liquid crystal surface, and the back of the picture where she works directly on the perspex. Thus the oil paints and pigments lie both behind and above the perspex, liquid crystal and resin. When she has finished the process of mark-making in oil paint or water-colour or both, she applies a final ground of colour behind the perspex at the back of the painting. She then brings the picture surface to completion, by applying anything from six to thirty layers of glazes.

In the case of Plate 14, Gail applied the deep midnight blue oil paint directly to the resin surface with her fingers, making a whole series of downward movements of the hand to create the illusion of the wing's vigorous, whirring agitation. The magical jewel-like gleam that vivifies the blues, and makes them lambent is an effect produced by the liquid crystal above the oil paint. The darker the colour of paint applied behind the perspex, the greater the intensity of brilliance and iridescence the liquid crystal imparts to the colours that lie behind it, and conversely the lighter the colour applied behind the perspex, the less intense is the effect of the layer of oil paint and glazes, and the dimmer the effulgent effect.

The rocks are produced by an entirely different technique which creates and effect of sculpture in low relief. Onto her liquid crystal, Gail applies a layer of scientifically formulated resin which she then combines with the local clay found on the banks of the lake beside which she now lives. She then employs two methods. She either creates a solid object about 25mm thick or she builds the object up, using layer upon layer of clay and resin. Each type is covered in sparse painterly marks which only cover a fraction of its surface. Because each layer bears traces of paint an illusion of profound depth results. The eye travels through the successive layers absorbing the forms which are superimposed upon each other. A in Plate 14, it is the liquid crystal behind all the layered resin and paint that make the rock formation glimmer like very low level neon. The naked, uncovered, solidified rock crystal only appears through the paint at intervals, but because it creates a silvery reflective surface like that of a mirror, it suggests infinite depth.

Gail applies her oils in a wide variety of ways to create different effects. Plate 14 is similar to Plate 6, inasmuch as the liquid crystal is only used behind the anatomical forms which delineate the bird of prey and the woman, and not in the red ground where the luminous effect is created purely by dense layers of red tinctured glazes. Here the oil paint has been applied in a completely antithetical, seemingly off-the-cuff, aleatory way, although the effect is meticulously concerted. It is a matter of seemingly random structure which is in reality, carefully controlled by the artist. The surface of the anatomies is spattered with irregular blobs, streaks, daubs, drips, spills and trails of paint to create a scumbled effect in which one colour shows through another. All this is distinct, sharply defined and seen in crisp focus, but Gail, who adores contrasts of texture and transparency, then overlays sections of this richly patterned surface with semi-opaque, opalescent, green, violet and red glazes to create an effect like mist, fog or haze which either blurs the forms behind them, or completely occludes them. At intervals the pure liquid crystal appears in its care state through tiny interstices in the paint, creating a dazzling white or silvery sheen reminiscent of mirror, silver foil or mica.

Gail’s painting are paradoxical. They always honour the modernist imperative that the artist renounce illusionism, and compel the canvas to disclose its true nature as a flat two-dimensional surface, at the same time as they produce this sense of infinite depth. The boundless expanses Gail creates, are seen to superb advantage in what I call her ‘cosmic landscapes’ (see Plates 12, 13 and 20) where the sprinkle of stars in the night sky appears to be light years away from us in distance.
Gail uses many devices to simulate fathomless receding space. The first is purely traditional, and consists of the multiple layers of delicately tinted glazes she applies one on top of the other. Further legerdemain occurs through Gail’s reliance on colour theory to create the impression that the transparent picture surface forms the doorway to an endless spatial continuum. Her strategy is to juxtapose colours that activate each other. By aligning colours according to scientific principles, Gail achieves a dynamic effect. One colour will make its neighbour appear to recede, while another will make it appear to project, so this interplay creates a pulsating surface in which the colours are animated, and continually appear to protrude in front of the adjacent colour or to sink back into depth behind it. A perfect example of this occurs in Plates 16, 17 and 18, which reproduce a triptych devoted to wild dogs. Here the earth that supports them is so drastically tilted upwards that it appears like a plinth. This gravely base is executed in warm, organic colours that propel themselves forward toward the picture plane, while the blue sky behind the beasts is cold, and recedes into depth. The dogs thus assume an emphatic, three-dimensional presence like sculpture, and the fact that they cast dark, anti-naturalistic shadows in the sky, heightens this impression of solidity, volume and illimitable expansiveness.

The illusion of depth is also enhanced by the solid forms that Gail embeds in the resin, which erupt the picture’s surface. These appear suspended within it, and create the suggestion that space occurs behind them. The best illusion of this is the cosmic painting reproduced in Plate 12 where the painted resin and clay is fashioned into coloured rocks, like asteroids or satellites, that appear to float in orbit above the earth.

It seems to me that Gail’s pioneering technological innovation in adapting liquid crystal to artistic creation corresponds to an internal necessity. She addresses one theme and one theme alone, although it assumes a multiplicity of forms, and that theme is nature, and more specifically the African landscape, its flora, fauna, cloud formations, light and diurnal rhythms of noon, sunset and sunrise. In order to achieve total immersion in nature, Gail lives in an isolated area in the South Eastern part of the Cape Province of South Africa, populated with abundant wild life in the form of rodents, snakes, insects, bushbuck, rooikatte (African feral cats) and birds of all kinds. Every year she journeys deep into the hinterland, and spends long sojourns in isolation in the bush. The bulk of the later work reproduced in this book was executed in the Karoo, a depopulated African semi-desert. During her rambles she scrutinises the landscape – grasses, blossoms, foliage, trees, leaves, wild animals – and the skyscape – clouds, lightning, dust storms and the moon and stars. She is keenly sensitive to the fact that nature is never static, rather it is process, metamorphosis and change. Nature is flux, and liquid crystal is the most dramatic and effective medium with which to express this, because it continually changes of its own accord, and eliminates any element of fixity. Like nature and the cosmos they depict, Gail’s paintings revolve around immemorial cycles and rhythms. The hour of the day, the season of the year, determine how her liquid crystal paintings respond to the light, in just the same way as the events recorded in her animal paintings and landscapes are determined by the earth’s journey around the sun. There is thus a perfect equation between the artist’s themes and the medium she has perfected in order to give them expression.

Fabbrizzio von Grebner

Gail Catlin
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Artist: GAIL CATLIN
Title: Dragonfly
Size: 10.5 x 15 cm
Media: Liquid Crystal and Resin
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