With all the pollution in the air surrounding curation, rehanging, labelling and to be or not to be in chronological or thematic order, Kaye Donachie’s Song for the Last Act at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (13 May–8 October 2023) confidently, but not smugly, has provided an answer. Issues of race, sexuality, identity, colonialism and contextualisation are addressed but they aren’t in bold, italics and underlined in the room descriptions. You can’t even complain about works being held captive in storage. The Reserve Collection in Room 11 ensures nothing is rolling away in cargo crates.

The unassuming gallery is tucked away to one side, but boy do you want to unpick it. So saturated with fresh perspectives that the very purpose of (mostly modern) art and galleries bleeds through, the gallery leaves you wondering why Anish Kapoor’s crimson doesn’t feature. The place isn’t short of other household colours – Auerbach, Freud, Hepworth and Hirst – but remember to pick up a few new paint samples. Visit Cathie Pilkington’s Pietà 4 (2019) which makes you think “Is that a new Sarah Lucas?”. Rachel Jones’ mottled A Sliced Tooth (2020) follows in Jenny Saville’s footsteps (well, treads on her heels). Victor Willing’s Self-Portrait at 70 (1987) blares out “I exist”. He most certainly does.

This gallery is a perfectly calibrated experiment with such clever craft. I wanted to shrink myself to a microscopic size to live in the mini coffee-table galleries installed – alternative doll’s houses which are not coated in pink. How refreshing.

Slap bang in the middle of all this is Kaye Donachie’s Song for the Last Act, a deftly creative synthesis of old and new. Donachie is a contemporary, female, British painter depicting 20th-century unrecognised women, specifically artists and poets. Claude Cahun, Lee Miller, Dora Maar – the list goes on. I know, I know, what’s new? But these portraits aren’t portraits as we know them. Donachie overlays oil portraits of women using archival and personal material on the same canvas. This means the women remain anonymous and universal – it’s not a likeness she seeks to capture (and nor should you). The paintings would buckle under names. Instead, these works are symbols of all those women, perhaps even all women past, present, and future. A collective gender, the ghostly works whisper, speak, shout and confer in wreaths of popsicle blue on a Virginia Woolf style Orlando stage. The title, selected from Louise Bogan’s 20th-century poem under the same name, foregrounds how women are no longer the understudies, nor are they doing costume fixings whilst the men hog the acid limelight. Donachie explains: “Forge an emotional connection between people and places, history and memory”.

The works are haunting: cold and shivery, yet warm and comforting. There is an alchemist at work here through fluid swirling and marbling in cool tones. We’ve been invited to a baptism of gender. The faces have all the candour of polaroids: precise yet rough and ready, frenetic, sketchy, glitching in and out of focus like a camera lens, fleeting, soft, resting. You’re underwater but there’s no need to come up for air. Donachie grew up by the sea, so it’s no wonder there is such mutable fluidity here.

In Silence into weary ears (2018), the aqua green seems ready to swallow her up. Scallop. Clamshell. Shut. The lips are stitched. There’s a stamp of youth with a fallen rose petal, the same tone used to stitch the lips shut. The woman is contained within her own cubicle of struggle redolent of a lockdown NHS nurse. Blink and a mask will be painted in.

The tide ebbs and flows. Glaze of Desire (2017) is electric, acidic, cold and burning. The brush marks flash like eels. Is the hand compositionally anchoring or is she about to peel off her rubber mask? A fed-up mum trying to balance work and kids? It’s loaded with all the relatable emotional charge of Sally Rooney-Billie Piper-Sylvia Plath.

Meanwhile, Be lost forever (2020) drowns in remorse: her put-together hair and scarf scream in incarceration – somebody whose taste for ambition as a woman has left her in a drought of intimacy.

Have we got it together in Dark renewing (2023)? Hope certainly seems to be swimming here.

The story’s not new but how Donachie tells the story certainly is. Interpret these ink blot tests how you will. Project your own plight of girlhood, womanhood, teenage sadness, or the entire portfolio of a gender. They are intentionally enigmatic, slipping and sliding but gently, tenderly.

You’ll leave wanting an encore, not your money back.

PS. Don’t forget to visit the shop, an emporium of reduced books which will surely crack your coffee table but not your wallet.