First published: Aesthetica magazine blog, January 2013
Kate MccGwire: LURE, All Visual Arts, 23 November 2012–16 February 2013, Kings Cross, London
Occupying a liminal space between nature, science and art, Kate MccGwire’s sculptures are both ominous and sensuous. Made from masses of delicate feathers, they are “impossible creatures”, spilling from gallery walls, or crouching in dimly lit vitrines. Unlike the carefully preserved animals we see in museums, MccGwire’s creatures are faceless and ultimately abstract. Often asphyxiated by scientific clamps, they bend into and onto themselves – revealing the delicate imbalance between nature and science on epistemological and emotional levels.
As seen in works such as Splice – an oversized braid of magpie feathers tumbling delicately from a metal ligature – questions of power and fear are always ominously present. Does the impulse to preserve and display dead animals reflect humanity’s power over nature? Or does it show, perhaps subconsciously, our fear of nature’s mysterious and predatory ways?
At Lure, a solo exhibition at All Visual Arts in London, MccGwire’s fascination with feathers is exposed in an impressive body of work that disturbs conventional notions of natural history. “Taking on its associations of intellectual dominance, decadence and display” her work, in the gallery’s words, creates “an impossible menagerie” where “both the beauty and darkness of nature” is powerfully revealed.
In the exhibition, MccGwire’s menagerie of sculptural and installation works is exquisite. Gyre, for example, seems to snake through the gallery – a huge, undulating wave of crow feathers that segues from the sinister to the sublime. By contrast, however, the wall-based works in the show lack the visual and conceptual resonance of the artist’s three-dimensional work, they seem like a pale accompaniment to the artist’s entrancing sculptures and large-scale installations.
Wall-based works aside, the diverse modes in which the artist displays her “creatures” rejects repetition. From sprawling, anthropomorphic figures, to breathless forms encased in glass domes and antique cabinets, MccGwire’s feathered sculptures squirm and seethe with life. In contrast to Maurizio Cattelan’s satirical taxidermy, or Polly Morgan’s mythologized tableaux of birds and roadkill, there is a sense that these fictional creatures are “animal” in a more emotional way.
In MccGwire’s words, her sculptures are “senuous and sensual, but there’s a sort of blackness [and] darkness to them that is suffocating or disturbing or disgusting in some way.” Imbued with aesthetic and emotional intensity, it is the sublime “blackness” of her work that is most powerful – it oozes from her serpentine sculptures and it peers, owl-like, from her inhabited, antique cabinets. It is here then, that MccGwire’s work really sings, in all its terrible and glorious beauty.