The Thinking Eye borrows its title from an anthology of Paul Klee’s notebooks. The phrase describes the ability of art to control the viewer’s looking, directing movement in the eye to create a sense of pattern and optical space. The title speaks to Kate Metten’s deep engagement with modernism and the discipline of painting, demonstrated in this new body of work created in the Burrard Arts Foundation Residency Program.
The paintings in The Thinking Eye all function from the framework of the grid, a formalist device that is emblematic of modernism. For Metten, the grid acts as a framework within which colour theory and geometric form are employed to examine the unique way in which we interpret and react to abstract images.
It may seem counterintuitive that development of these works, expressly concerned with painting, was informed by technology. But they began with Metten’s Thinking Eye series, which emerged as a response to her work with virtual reality at Emily Carr’s Material Matters studio. Metten conducted a residency in this design and research lab concurrently with her work at BAF.
In VR, marks are made in 3D space, not limited in any direction. For Metten, returning to painting after this experience necessitated a focus on the medium itself and the limitations that define it. These limitations, the flatness of the surface and its defined edge, are Modernist concerns. The edge of each work in the Thinking Eye series is isolated, revealing this renewed awareness.
VR drove home for Metten that reality is less objective than we think. The experience of looking is a product of the brain and eye together, rather than the looker’s physical surroundings. Geometric abstraction provides a vehicle for these works to explore this subjective nature of experience.
Metten’s previous painting practice has investigated optical illusion, and here, that focus expands to include optical space and perception itself, grounded in her research into how the brain processes abstract and reductionist imagery. Metten’s process involves laying down many thin layers of glazing medium, resulting in illusionistic depth and optical colour mixing – the colours the viewer perceives were created in their eye.
Geometric abstraction also interests Metten for its anonymity. Negating the landscape and figure, this subject matter includes little presence of the maker’s hand. One might assume these works reveal nothing about the artist, but the constraints of this form can also act as a container for energy. Historically, abstraction has often been intended to reveal the subconscious, and Metten describes these works as a translation of inner to outer. Quite literally, the works are a record of intuitive thought and decision making.