Kaye Donachie

In 1973, Harald Szeemann—while working on his Museum der Obsessionen—became himself obsessed by the Swiss utopia Monte Verità, near Lake Maggiore, and eventually a museum was established to celebrate the site’s history. The mountaintop retreat—nominally founded by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (at a time when it was still known as Monescia) in the 1870s—flourished between 1900 and 1940, when it attracted anarchists, nudists, and Theosophists alongside such figures as Martin Buber, Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Rudolf von Laban, Isadora Duncan, Hermann Hesse (who famously had his alcoholism treated there), and the sexual revolutionary Otto Gross. (In fact, Szeemann portrayed Gross in Otto Mühl’s 1987 film Back to Fucking Cambridge, and ever since, Gross scholarship has been tied to Szeemann’s work on the mountain.) In this alpine hideaway the curator sought to pursue his endless quest for “individual mythologies,” and he desperately tried to establish a new order based on the utopia’s ideals.

Kaye Donachie, clearly beguiled by the place, or at least its myth, captures hazy, ecstatic scenes from its chronicles, basing her compositions on images from the community’s heyday. The moments she captures, at times drenched in almost cinematic drama, subtly suggest that something darker lurks behind the blissed-out states experienced on the mountain by these reformers of life. She hints at something downright sinister and postapocalyptic, an alluring and almost addictive quality. Days piled high collapse and How colourfully each other self unwinds (all works 2005)—her titles are taken from Dada poetry by Emmy Hennings, a Monte Verità habitué and one of the founders of the Cabaret Voltaire—are the most resonant depictions here of the wistful atmosphere of the mountain, successfully rendered through the prism of more familiar visions of its distant cousins of ’60s counterculture. Her fuzzy figurations and obscured landscapes survey the places in between emotional and spiritual rapture in these ill-defined communities: arms flail, faces yearn, hopeful, reaching, and vaguely ritualistic.

The muddy palette and loose brushwork of During the days, we move along like frightened animals and We wait for one last adventure suit these paintings’ almost primitive-looking inhabitants. In the former, a gunny-sacked man ambles out from an antler-crowned cave; the latter features a gathering staring weakly at a ghostly, luminous figure. The positively eerie Wandervogel is probably the most cinematic piece in the show. Five figures, including the group’s guitar-strumming leader, captured in long focus, are awash in an acid yellow sunlight and would successfully conjure the rambling, singing, feel-good, world-changing sentiment of the German youth group of that name if only it weren’t for the spectral faces of the three figures at left. Like the sentiment evoked by the title of Donachie’s 2004 painting (Mark Frechette) I guess I just wasn’t made for these times, which was part of her previous show here two years ago, her new work (also included in this year’s Tate Triennial), and the characters who inhabit it, respond to a contemporary malaise, some sense of chronic dissatisfaction or psychic confusion, and the ensuing search for something, anything, somewhere else.

Eugenia Bell