According to the artist Kate Jacob, the titles of her works come last, not so much completing the picture but arising from it.

So, similar to the way in which her canvases seek to convey something of the fractal complexity of feeling over time, the words she pins to them are poetic allusions to what the patterns mean to her, suggestive rather than deterministic.

Her current exhibition at Marple’s Mura Ma, How to knit a nebula, presents an overview of her recent work, informed in part by the continued reverberations of her personal bereavements – that of her husband, taken by bowel cancer in 2007, and more recently that of her mother, lost to dementia.

Image by Helen Roscoe

Accretions of acrylic, pastels and ink, laid down more often than not over a period of months, the best of her works are imbued with the gravity of this thinking time. Like human lives, they bear the surface marks of their weathering, aged by their experience. Unlike human lives, they remain fixed, caught at a particular point in their trajectory, open to interpretation. As such, they can be read as anatomies of grief, as well as Jacob’s process, typically working on several pieces at the same time, varying her tempo, lending itself to being understood as a narrative in abstract.

Rather like oversized panels from the pages of a comic book, Jacob describes the works as “being like a book, where each one is another page turned”. To borrow the metaphor of the exhibition’s title, rather than being laid out linearly in the direction of time’s arrow, they are brought together like pieces of evidence from an investigation, rather like knitting without knowing the pattern.

Her focus seems to range in scale from that of slides mounted for magnification beneath an electron microscope to radiations analysed beyond the visible spectrum across a radio telescope’s sweep, from the inter-synaptic to the inter-galactic. For example, while the forms of Visceral Self suggest both the curved architecture of vertebrae and a more ambiguous bloom, metastasising ominously at its base, its vivid hues seem more of a piece with the more esoteric practice of Kirlian photography, a practice which purported to bottle the electricity of the soul.

This same numinous quality recurs from canvas to canvas, from the funeral bouquet of Memory Bank II’s mourning colours, like a computer tomography brain scan supervised by Max Ernst, to the bruised poppies blooming and dying away on the substrate of From Mass To Matter.

Image by Helen Roscoe

Two of her drawings, also included in the show, have a complementary charm; less emphatic than her canvases, they seem to represent an earlier stage of development, traceries like fungal hyphae before they coalesce into a mycelium, neurons before the network.

Alchemical in the sense that they map their reference points from both art and science, the essence of the pieces lies in the way they invoke a desire for meaning in the fleeting chaos of existence; a pattern from which sense can be divined. The framework, perhaps, whether astrological or astronomical, neurological or simply logical, is as important for the frame it sets as the cosmology it imposes, the reassurance that some underlying principle might act as a guiding star.

Where others might seek to impose their vision on the viewer, Jacob’s works are an invitation to discern for yourself. Looking into the night sky without a map, they chart new constellations.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Helen Roscoe


How to knit a nebula is at Mura Ma in Marple until February 10, 2024. For more information, click here.