Charlotte Keates' paintings invite us into an all-American “dreamscape”

31 January 2019

“I think I’ve always been drawn to architecture,” says east London-based artist Charlotte Keates. “Particularly the geometric beauty conveyed within the architectural forms and the calming aesthetic they evoke.”

Charlotte, who graduated from art school six years ago and who just wrapped up a solo show in Miami, has a gift for capturing both the physicality and the atmosphere of architectural spaces. For instance her recent show in Florida, entitled The Kennedy Trip, consisted of nearly 50 paintings showing American houses. Most often depicting the mid-century modernist style, their tranquillity translated onto the boards she uses through stock-still palm trees and pools without a single ripple disturbing their surface.

“I’m always trying to find the balance between the beauty and simplicity of an architectural space and the way a space or scene can make us feel,” she says. “The spaces are a collage of memory and imagination for me, and I think this can give them an almost ‘dreamscape’ feel.” Ideas of utopian realms and ideal spaces – which were dear to the original architects of these kinds of buildings – can also always be found hanging in the background of her work.

It might seem surprising that a painter based in Hackney spends her time conjuring up quintessentially American landscapes. But she has good reason and the story is pretty fascinating. Charlotte has a stack of Kodachrome slides from the 1950s and 60s that she “indirectly acquired” (according to her website) from a wealthy American family, the Kennedys, and that document their travels across the US during these decades. Travelling to many of these places herself since, the artist continues to use the slides for inspiration – which perhaps explains the nostalgic feel of her works.

“I want to try to trigger a memory or a feeling within the viewer, so that there is an overwhelming sense of familiarity,” she says. “I hope the viewer feels an affinity to the space but also cannot place its location or inspiration – like a memory of a dream you once had.”

Her creative process stems from this as well. “Because my paintings are inspired by memories or ideas of spaces, I usually have a starting point or trigger for a painting and the rest unfolds very organically,” she says. “I work a lot with flow and never like to over-plan a painting – I find it kills something that is really beautiful in the process.”

Even though her paintings depict fundamentally human landscapes, actual people are oddly absent in Charlotte’s work. “I’ve always felt like painting people within the spaces seems to give too much away,” she says. “I like that the viewer can decipher for themselves, place themselves within the spaces or imagine the inhabitants.”

Placing yourself within the picture can be a weirdly disorientating experience, though. At first glance the paintings often look highly believable – the perspective is realistic and the proportions are all in order. But then you look closer and find your eye has deceived you. “It’s a bit like painting a reality that is slightly altered,” Charlotte explains, “where only one row of windows are reflected in the water beneath, pillars hover just off of the ground and often the viewer is left unsure if they are outside looking in or inside looked out.”

It’s a style that has grabbed attention (and collectors) around the world. With her first solo show in the US – with Arusha Gallery at Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in Miami – now in the rear-view mirror, Charlotte is looking ahead at two mouth-watering artist residencies, one in Indonesia and then one in Japan, “where I will be drawing, writing and working on lots of new projects”, she says. “We are now also planning another solo exhibition in the States for 2020, most likely New York, which is super exciting.”


Charlotte Keates: Down the Line (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Emerald Sea (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Racquet Club (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Whispers in the Waiting Room (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Warmth of the Golden Hour (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Wandering the Walkways (© Charlotte Keates)


Charlotte Keates: Magenta Sunrise (© Charlotte Keates)

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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