Kim Booker is a painter based in London. Her work is primarily about the practice of painting. Through referencing and reclaiming the methods of artists such as Georg Baselitz and Willem de Kooning, Booker challenges traditional ideas of the male genius and heroic painter. As she’s a friend of mine, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Booker’s studio on several occasions, and to see her work progress over the last few years. Often working on the floor on a ragged piece of canvas, her process is energetic and playful, involving explorations of colour, form and the process of painting. She works in fast layers, arriving at the final painting after a process of editing, reworking and redacting.
In her recent series, Rodin Remixed, Booker worked partly from her drawings of elements of Rodin’s sculptures. She stumbled across an old book of Rodin sculptures in her University library and was struck by the limbs, “I wanted to de-sexualise the nudes in a way, so I started making quick biro pen sketches of bits of bodies, and then used those when I needed an image for a painting”, Booker explains. The title for the series comes from the source material, but also alludes to Baselitz’s “Remix” paintings series, where he repainted his early work from the 1960s in his contemporary style.
“If you’re remixing popular music you change the rhythm or the sound. . . What I do is something entirely different. I have thought for a long time about what to call what I do.
I liked the word ‘remix’ because it comes from youth culture.” - Baselitz
For Booker, Baselitz’s use of the word “remix” was an amusing attempt to stay relevant, revealing his desperation to appeal to and understand “youth culture”. By using it her work, she satires the male genius, questioning their elevated status.
In addition to this, Booker’s paintings raise questions and attempt to address some of her own feelings surrounding gender politics in the art world, such as, “how pink can you go before it’s too ‘feminine’? But is being feminine even a problem? Should I be embracing and celebrating the ‘feminine’ aesthetic, if one should exist? I believe that it is different when Guston makes a pink painting to when a female painter makes a pink painting. If as a woman you make a black painting is it interpreted as being more angsty than if a man had painted it?”.
This internal conflict is perhaps most palpable in Booker’s painting Gravity will always bring you down (2019). At the bottom of the painting, the viewer is presented with a smooth black void, reminding me of Malevich’s Black Square. Not only does this allude to the notion of painting about painting, but it is another nod to the male ‘genius’ narrative. The black seeps through the next layer, its presence still lingering. On top of this, Booker layers fast, gestural brushstrokes in pink, which compete for the viewer’s attention against the swallowing black. A final layer of black is used in the top corner of the painting, weaker in its conviction than before, eventually absorbed by the pink beneath.
Can her use of colour and gesture in this painting be described as a hierarchical battle between the two gendered colours and the spaces they occupy within painting? Yes, and no. Yes, the way in which she paints raises questions about what it means for a woman to be painting in these styles with these colours. However, it feels like Booker is having a laugh at my expense for reading the painting in this way; if she were a man perhaps I would solely be focusing on the way in which these contrasting colours and gestures generate an awkward tension within the painting. Parts of her paintings feel stilted and controlled, whilst others feel fluid and spontaneous, generating a duality that Booker describes as a “conflict between an impulse for defiance and a desire for beauty”. In this endeavour, Booker draws influence from Roy Oxlade, who used reductive techniques and a language of signs in his work to “prevent the possession or even the awareness of sophisticated technique from destroying directness and natural impulse.” – Oxlade
If not for the suggestive title of this series, Rodin Remixed, the reference to Rodin is somewhat vague in Booker’s paintings, though the fractured limbs in her paintings do retain the exaggerated muscularity of Rodin’s original works. Booker finds the ambiguity that arises from fracturing the figure more dynamic and suggestive as it allows her to focus on making a compelling painting, rather than a compelling representation of something. In Legs with red dots (2019), the limbs are certainly not dominant in the work, but instead act as gestural marks that guide the viewer’s eye around the painting, effortlessly weaving in and out of luscious painterly layers, adding a fluctuating depth to the painting that is difficult to penetrate.
For me, Booker paints male figures with the same anonymity and disembodiment that is thrust upon women’s bodies. In Fleshold (2019), Booker paints two floating arms gripping onto a detached leg; the arms offer the leg to the viewer in the same way that one might imagine a butcher presents their prized leg of meat to a potential buyer. A woman’s body is often described in a more fractured way and as a woman I have struggled to find a sense of wholeness within my own body as if it only exists in separate parts, tenuously strung together. This feeling is exacerbated by a capitalist society that sells ‘magic’ creams and ‘cures’ for just about every section of our bodies. The result is a fragile sense of self that is more easily dismembered.
At first glance, these concerns may not be obvious within Booker’s paintings, but after sitting with her work for a while, it becomes clear how her use of paint, colour and source material circles current debates within gender politics and depictions of women. It’s Booker’s bold colour choices, striking compositions and dynamic use of paint that garner my immediate attention; but it’s the way in which her work subtly prompts a re-evaluation of tired narratives and societal structures that means her paintings linger in my mind long after I leave her studio.
Words by Megan Preston Elliot: @meganprestonart
Paintings by Kim Booker: www.kimbooker.com