Gail Catlin was born in March 1948. She started working with bronze, but made a name for herself in the South African art world with her liquid crystal paintings.
To quote Lin Sampson "When Gail Catlin started talking about her art, her eyes changed blues at such an alarming rate she might have been connected to an unreliable electricity supply." How prescient those words were, not only with respect to Eskom's woes (the South African electricity suppliers), but also to the nature of Catlin's art.
It is no exaggeration to say that Gail Catlin is the first, and possibly also the only, artist to use liquid crystal as the principal medium in her art. The question that begs an answer is: why would she choose to use such a difficult and elusive medium?
While Catlin lived in Arniston, she became fascinated, but also frustrated, by the nacreous quality of sea shells and mother-of-pearl, and was convinced that a new colour spectrum needed to be developed to capture the subtle and ever-changing shades of Nature. She also realized that she was more fascinated by the colour spectrum of the moon than of the sun.
She experimented with clays and resins and fiberglass, which played nicely with light, but only when used in sculptural form. She wanted to paint with materials that played with light. Her aim was no less than to capture the most elusive of nuances, the most intangible subtleties of Nature, but she was frustrated by the inadequacies of the traditional media of oil paint, acrylics and water-colour.
While at the Royal College of Art in London, she visited the Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine, and asked the boffins there how she could capture the pearly colour of sea shells. They advised her to use a mirror to split white light into the colour spectrum, as al-Haytham and Isaac Newton had done many years before.
But Catlin wasn't satisfied with this explanation. She made contact with a Dr Cyril Hilsum at General Electric, who was a world expert on liquid crystal; it was he who first introduced her to liquid crystal. Together, as student and mentor, they set off on a symbiotic journey of discovery, the results of which we see in Catlin’s work today.
The beauty of liquid crystals, from an artist's point of view, is that they are infinitely flexible and fluid, and can be painted onto an artwork, It's like painting with liquid diamonds.
Through painstaking experimentation over many enormously frustrating years, both in England and South Africa, Catlin gradually began to master the fugitive alchemy of liquid crystals. She learned how to capture iridescence and lustre, as well as the changing diel and seasonal moods of landscapes and objects.
She began to paint with liquid crystals in such a way that she could anticipate their responses, to light, to temperature and to each other. A magical relationship developed between the artist and her medium, lying midway between predictable science and fickle art, but the process of discovery and understanding was still ongoing.
For many years Catlin produced mainly dark, nocturnal colours from the medium, and struggled to create the kind of lighter palette she needed to evoke her chosen terrain, the sun-baked African plain. She eventually resolved this problem, partly by accident (as all great discoveries are made), by painting on tippled, white paper. She sent a sample to Dr Hilsum, who noted that the crystals rested at a slight angle towards each other and found that, the more you angle the crystals, the more you enhance their ability to reflect light in different directions. This produces a greater degree of optical shimmer and colour contrast, with each crystal acting like a miniature prism.
The use of a white background also released a whole new spectrum of softer, lighter colours.
What Catlin has now achieved is quite extraordinary. As Fabbrizzio von Grebner has rightly stated, Catin's personal contribution to world art is that her works have achieved a kind of metastasis — the ability of the artwork to escape fixity and to constantly transform itself like a kaleidoscope. She has achieved this by simultaneously being an alchemist, scientist, magician and artist.
She has also, on an unprecedented scale, worked closely with some of the best scientists and technologists in the world in the field of liquid crystals in order to obtain a full understanding of her magical medium. She is probably also one of the first artists to venture into the realm of nanotechnology, the study and manipulation of materials at the molecular level.
Catlin has produced a unique body of work, not only in terms of her abstract imagery or dramatic chromatic effects, but also because of the lively responsiveness of her artworks to the viewer.
Gail Catlin has possibly come closer than anyone to capturing the infinitely varied iridescence and colour spectrum, not only of the pearl, but also of the African landscape. She has short-circuited millions of years of evolution and solved one of the secrets of Nature.