Irene Kana: Living Colour

Thereza Lanitis Spanos

Layer upon layer. Paint over paint. Etched, dotted, and daubed. Pastel mantles dark and light plays with light. Colour meets shape and shape embraces colour. Palettes of burnished yellow golds, lilac green lavenders, and the palest pink. Fire oranges, saturated and surrendered. Granulated coloured earth melting into nectar, satiating like a feast. A provocative fluid sweep of indigo line, deft, assured, youthful and vibrant.

Words, however evocative cannot fully describe the physical act of painting. Kana’s paintings are witness to the very physicality of painting. They are a tribute to the dance that happens between canvas, body and paint. They record the lending of the physical body to creation. The almost visible hand that leaves behind the trailing blaze of colour is always in evidence. One feels the pulse deep within, that choreographs the tapestry of colour that weaves the story of light. Tactile, sensory, almost hedonistic, her surface luxuriates in texture and colour. This vibrant, raw engagement feels breathtakingly emotive.

On a primal level Kana is painting the experience of painting a painting. And then, that becomes about organizing states of feeling. Out of this, her image, her female, in full masterful painterly plasticity emerges and evolves, sheathed and glowing like an Aphrodite from the sea. These paintings feel to be in a constant state of becoming. They seem to hover with tenuous resolve in their apparent final completion. As though, a turn of the head, an unlocking of hands would kaleidoscope a spectrum of hues into utter disarray before never quite settling.

The immediate impression one has is that these paintings were painted with speed – at least that the paint was applied with speed, but that the layers of paint were built up over time. Consequently, time seems to settle into three zones; an evident past (layers of paint built up over time), an immediate present (the image and surface as experienced), and the eternal (the outlasting of that which is depicted). Interestingly, the image itself seems to similarly correspond, which is that of the female as myth, as biography, and as eternal nature.

Art object is always art process and on initial appraisal we swiftly process an art historical legacy, flashes of Vermeer, Degas, Schiele, Gauguin, Dufy, Toulouse Lautrec to name a few, make their contributions felt. And then equally swiftly, we witness this respectful assimilation transformed into a personal celebration of style. A new language out of an old and venerated one gives way to a new personal paint path.

Kana’s membrane of pure pigment belongs to a deeply personal space, and one that is utterly informed by the feminine. It journals a journey of womanhood. From the purity and innocence of the poignantly poetic child, perhaps the most sensitive, tender and lyrical of all Kana’s portraits, through to the celebration of young adulthood in all its hopes and aspirations, and ultimately to the provocateur, the seductress with all her dangerous charm, woman is exposed in her many facets and guises. Whether she be demure, coy, teasing or flirtatious, Kana’s woman reveals only as much as she desires to reveal. At times we catch a heart-rending glimpse into her longings and at others we are allowed just as far in, for us to know that we are left out. But however woman is portrayed, Kana is supremely sensitive to the child growing up, to the potential loss of innocence (though never vulnerability), to the shattering of the heart held dream, and the delicate balance that negotiates the siren and the nymph, the sacred and the profane.

Kana is above all a storyteller.

And her narrative is one that is readily felt but not specifically articulated, expressed but not explained and belongs much to the preverbal state of sensation. The senses are the perceptual systems that chart her vocabulary.

Every woman has a story to tell. The story lies in the tilt of the head, the cradled chin, the hand gesture, the slope of the shoulder, the indentation of the collarbone, the dreamy blue gaze. And it is in this characteristic moment that creates the sudden sharp reminder of looking at a portrait, of a sitter; of personhood animating the picture plane. Of course they are portraits. But the immediacy, fluidity and flexibility with which they are rendered give them a surprising capacity to generate new directions and unexpected, unpredictable twists to the storyline. The face that faces the beholder can vary from palpable resolution to unsettling caricature, from a revelation of the soul to the painted mask. They are also and always a pure sensual celebration of womanhood, nestling, luxuriating, and curling into blankets of colour that hold and sustain her, the energy of which often becoming an object unto itself. Youth glows soft. Rounded luminous breasts and incandescent skin are invariably sun and moonlit. These womenscapes seem to embody the very salient qualities that define all that is woman, and as such they are all self portraits, portraits and us. They are images of women and images as women.

Perhaps more enigmatic is the other story, the revelation of which is due to the inclusion of certain contextual clues. It then becomes no longer just the pose, the look, or the position on the picture plane, but rather in the tantalising appearance of say… a moon, new, hanging, hidden, embellishing, - or a butterfly, incised, hovering, captured, sometimes unobtrusive and often larger than life. It might be a cat; the feline companion who understands, comforts, indeed embodies the female psyche, or a flower, a heart and on a more disquieting note, a champagne glass, a cigarette, an apple or a snake.

These objects like the colours themselves tempt, tease and elude while at the same time promise wonders and deep secrets. Now it necessarily becomes more than the assumption that appearance reflects personality, or that the outer body reveals its inner story. With these subtle inferences more than just biographies are revealed. The result of these cues is that they take us under or beyond the skin, toward the sensibility, the very impulse of woman. At best they lead us to the purity of her rainbow coloured soul, and at their most provocative reveal the duality and disparity of that time-worn story that is etched on the heart of her mythology. It is the story that dates prehistory with all its notorious consequences that haunts every woman and choreographs every relationship. Ultimately it is the story that shadows and burdens the future of every young girl’s existence.

Kana though deeply aware of the labels that might define woman, also revels in them. Kana turns the tables so to speak. Her women embody, even embrace the archetype, they are though, however, vividly contemporary. We recognize them. In fact we know them. And we also know the child, the Madonna, the goddess, the fallen woman who beats in us simultaneously, across tradition and time, to merge and emerge in pulsating palette. Kana has a passionate need to render female experience in its multidimensionality to patterned form. Indeed Kana dreams in paint.

These provoking clues are as enigmatic as they are revealing. They keep us from coming to some diagnostic decision. We find ourselves trying to reach a plausible perceptual interpretation, but just as her unnameable colours are the beacons by which we navigate her colour space, so we try to map the parts that make up her aesthetic experience. And so we hover, like her butterflies between the double reality of paint and image, narrative and abstraction, light and dark, the painterly and the illustrative. The attempt to find coherence through the sum of all these parts is akin to the discoveries we keep making on her painterly surface. Kana keeps our eyes moving.

Our eye catches the moon.

It is a new moon and it is the one that graces every child’s storybook, the one that shines with benevolence and promise. The moon is also mistress of the night and illumines our most intimate thoughts and acts. It is regarded as a staging post to the realization of our dreams, fantasies and yearnings and it separates heaven from earth. The moon is invariably female in mythology and has long been associated with water, regulating the rhythm and flow of oceans, seas, tears and menstrual cycles. When sunlight and the vapours of the moon combine, all the colours of the world magically appear in the rainbow. With Kana the sunlight finds its manifestation in the butterfly, unfettered, free-spirited, enchanted, heralding promises and changes in its delicate dance of a fertile spring.

In the recesses of Kana’s darkest darks, one senses rather than sees the troubled waters in paradise. It is the place where darkest blues fall and fiery reds seek to rise, and where the fleeting age of innocence encounters an ominous cloud in the Garden of Eden. It becomes the treacherous place of betrayal, abandonment and broken hearts, and where woman turns towards role playing and artifice. It begins innocently enough, but childlike endeavour to try on different guises disturbingly turns to the garishness of the painted face, the mask-like parody of herself. She dissolves like the figments of paint that barely describe her. It is from here that she turns her female gaze onto the beholder, as provocative as the forbidden fruit. Her eroticism is such that it is tempting to attribute to her the full gender gaze theorem, but it is not as easily settled as that. She dares us with her stance. And we have to ask, what is it that she wants from us? Is it to be admired and desired, or perhaps to become partners in crime in the fall from grace? She is simultaneously accusing and transfixing. Does she wish to enthral the beholder, beguiling him with a power that ultimately turns him into the object that she gazes upon? That she exercises a certain kind of mastery over her beholder there is no doubt. But whether it is the heart of the princess that beats in the body of the temptress or the profane heart that beats in the body of a princess is never clear. And so we find ourselves watching, wondering, and in the meantime surrendering.

And in the same way that we can return again and again to these colours that reconfigure every time we look, we can return to this world of women filled with feeling, privacy, will, consciousness, agency and desire. We rediscover romance, courtship, playfulness, dreams, hidden agendas and the vitality and dynamism of exultant youth. The freshness that permeates the canvas is in the very fabric of the paint as it dissolves into atoms of colour. The closer we get to the paintings the more they break up into pulsating particles of pure pigment. Not unlike the body itself, the DNA of colour becomes shimmering molecules, light captured in substance. And in keeping with woman’s unique and ultimate gift, Kana’s paintbrush is heavy and pregnant with a life-force that celebrates her place in the universe.

Thereza Lanitis Spanos
Visual Artist, Theory and Practice of Art
Department of Graphic Design
University of Nicosia

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