Of Feather and Stone

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Exhibition essay to accompany the show Peter Randall-Page RA RWA and Kate MccGwire, at RWA, 2015. The essay can also be downloaded as a PDF here Of Feather and Stone.

These are the ancient and the modern: upturned stone carved and hollowed, feathered limbs emerging, writhing from the fecund fen. Inside and out, excavated, subtracted, miniaturised and expanded. Suffocated, unleashed, clamped, grasped, squeezed and squeezing. The past patterned upon them, imbedded and fossilised. Time lingers upon the surface, slipping, sliding below and resurfacing. Nature’s ebb and flow, or the inevitable “dance between geometry and organism”1.

Part One: Upon the horizon rose a flock of birds, moving as one.
Since 2005, when Kate MccGwire moved her studio to a Dutch barge on the River Thames, feathers have been her prime source of material. Inspired by the surrounding wildlife of her habitat, her work has developed an underlying thread. Yet this ornithological flight is not a new relationship. Its roots go deeper, entangled in childhood and entwined with a history of place. Growing up on the Norfolk Broads, birds have been with MccGwire from ‘dawn till dusk’. Their migratory patterns are imbedded in memory and the cultural connotations of particular species inform the meaning of her work.

An equally prevalent motif is that of water. There is a recurring slippage within MccGwire’s coiled works which mirrors the ebb and flow of the ‘liquid landscape’ of her childhood: a place where ancient inshore currents threaten the reclaimed land. The word itself – liquid – oozes with meaning, rich and viscous, its syllables seeping together. It is these inky blue-black waters which gurgled below the fertile surface of the soil that inspire and infiltrate her work: “It is strange – or perhaps not strange, not strange at all, only logical that the bare and empty fens yield so readily to the imaginary and the supernatural.”2

The movement of water and the movement of birds lend themselves well to a discussion of MccGwire’s work. Just as water droplets join to form a constantly moving and mutating mass, so too does a flock of birds caught mid-flight in murmuration. Here, flying close to the ground then soaring upwards each bird remains equidistant to one another based on the span of their wings. Although the density remains the same throughout, the centre never stabilises. And neither do MccGwire’s larger serpentine sculptures. Even confined they are suggestive of movement.

This is in part due to the relationship between surface and that which is submerged, the formalism of what lies above and below. But it is also a result of their material duality. Feathers possess both strength and fragility. Their use and purpose is multiple: including flight, insulation, waterproofing, communication and protection3. However, unlike the exotic ornamental plumage from the popular 18th century paradiseaeidae (bird pf paradise), MccGwire favours the indigenous markings of British birds, embracing the blue-black of the Crow and the shining iridescence of the common Mallard. Illuminated in daylight these humble feathers are transformed so that even when the viewer stands still, microscopic changes in the sun’s rays transform each plume travelling through the underbelly of the rainbow from green to blue to black to brown.

MccGwire treats these precious materials with incessant care, defined by a deeply entrenched respect for the natural world. Her feathers are cherished: collected, preserved and conserved. Just as a bird sheds its coat each year, creating a bountiful harvest, MccGwire too works in volume. The ‘making’ process is hugely physical with pieces sometimes taking months to construct and often requiring the artist to distort and contort herself into unnatural positions. Her work often flows from drawings where shapes come alive, winding their way about the page. Sometimes these are finished works such as the labyrinth of worm-like coils burrowing their way in graphite across the paper as in Intest. Often though they are simply ideas that hatch then mutate before becoming realised in their three-dimensional form.

The visceral physicality of MccGwire’s sculpture lends itself to a phenomenological response, as it stands before, above or below us, looking in, out, through and beyond. Her work, which is conceived within the narrow confines of her studio, changes perceptibly with each new environment as the space around it contracts or expands, pulling and pushing the work in different directions.

As a viewer our relationship with both site and sculpture changes too as our movement around the work is subtly shifted by the gallery’s architecture, creating new perspectives in space. With their sinuous form and limb-like proportions MccGwire’s sculpture’s often force an uncomfortable act of recognition: “as a body which takes up part of the same space.”4 Here, Flail, in particular, knotted and twisted and locked away, provokes a strong bodily response, tying its own metaphorical knots tight around our torso. Pushing out-and-in and between, entangled without any hope of yielding to the touch. References to the marble sinew of Laocoön5 are not lost.

If Flail appeals to our corporal consciousness, then Gyre achieves a sublime monstrousness, suspended between beauty and the grotesque. It emerges from-and-through the flat linearity of the gallery wall. Thrusting, writhing, both repellent and compelling – ‘for they are still trying to straighten out the slithering, wriggly, eel like Ooze.’6 It twists and turns wrapping round, round and around itself, mimicking the macabre ribbons of an underwater maypole, playful yet treacherous. A velveteen coat of feathers catches the light as our gaze is absorbed, blackened, pulled between its folds and held.

These hybrid creatures blur the lines between man and beast. Or rather the human body ‘but it’s not the human body.’7 In Gyre we are confronted with an-‘other’. There is recognition and revulsion, familiarity and fear. Weaving and winding surreptitiously along the gallery floor – like an eel snaking along the riverbed8 – it makes us wary of its serpentine hold. And what of ‘to hold’? MccGwire’s sculptures are inherently tactual. From the preening that takes place as part of the process of ‘making’ they beseech us with their tactility. Stroke me.

In sharp contrast MccGwire’s glass encased sculptures reject our touch, perfectly poised and cocooned in glass. She has suggested that her work explores the notion of the ‘unseen being brought to the surface.’9 Here, the surface is two-fold; a feathered coat and transparent cloche. MccGwire chooses the cases first then constructs the work to go inside them, ensuring a suffocating and claustrophobic proximity between sculpture and shroud. Viewing the work is akin to a type of zoological voyeurism, peering through the glass our gaze is reflected and deferred, softened and safeguarded.

There is also something of the fetish here, not just in the winding gyration of shape and form but in the feathers themselves. As an objet d’art they have been likened to fur and velvet and thus equated with Freud’s notion of fetishism.10 Yet, MccGwire’s sculpture skirts these connotations staking its claim forcefully in the natural world. Through mimicking the organic patterns found in nature her work supersedes the merely fetishistic or decorative to rest, hauntingly, at a point between familiarity and fantasy.

Part Two: A ‘dance between geometry and organism’.11
As a child Peter Randall-Page was a collector. Stones, seeds, leaves and fossils: nature’s treasure cradled in small hands and pocketed for safekeeping. Imagine a sturdy shelf leaden with bounty where the miniature perfection of an acorn cup sits side-by-side with the split husk of a walnut – prized possessions that would later form the inspiration for a lifetime of work.

Play is important to Randall-Page, and now, lined-up in the gallery, his sculpture makes direct reference to those shapes and forms collected in infancy. The past too is important in as much that his work possesses a sense of timelessness. Size and material may have differed but essentially he is still ‘playing’ with the same patterns and structures he explored as a child.

Occupying a space between play and order Randall-Page’s work is also rooted in science as he dances the thin line between the objectivity of a mathematician and the subjectivity of an artist, or in his own words ‘the known and the ambiguous’12. As his work has developed, the notion of metaphor has become more redolent, and in his large-scale ink drawings the idea of ‘a reminder of something else’ takes on multiple possibilities. Splaying out and upwards, defying gravity, tipped and tilted so as to owe as much to chance as to plan, these watery tributaries evoke memories of tree roots, river deltas and vascular networks.

The ‘memories’ that Randall-Page’s work provokes find their formation in the natural world, offering up variations of the same theme. He has often referred to ‘nature’s blueprint’13 as a guiding force in his work, furnishing him with the rules from which to deviate. In Theme and Variation, a series of bronze sculptures, this idea is played out to fruition. The bulbous shape of naturally eroded boulders has been cast in fibreglass to which thousands of spherical ping pong balls have then been added. From here the work is cast in bronze and finished with a dense black patina, polished to perfection and covered in shining nodules. These protuberances are part of a textured outer skin, imperfectly spiralling around the amorphous form. Their outer appearance is that of a rather docile sea anemone, edges smoothed and removed of its sting, or the firm skin of an engorged bread fruit.

They too entice a sense of touch. In their uniformed texture there is a dual sense of the unknown and familiarity. One imagines that to run the smooth palm of an outstretched hand across the surface would proffer up a simple form of communication or narrative – a sculptural vocabulary – through which we are helped to understand the world. Similar to that, perhaps, of the sequenced dots found in braille or musical notes arranged upon a score. For music is important to this notion of variation upon a theme.

As well as touch there is also a strong sense of the body itself, as scale and proportion augment and contract dependent on their predestined environment. In the past Randall-Page has produced monumental public art works such as Give and Take or Green Fuse, and then there are the architectural interventions such as the colossal Seed imbedded in the architectural fabric of the Eden Project’s latticed canopy. Yet it is his ‘domestically’ proportioned works, such as the series Inside Out, experienced within the confines of the gallery space, that confront us so squarely with our own corporeality. Stood before their hulking mass you could reach out and attempt to wrap your arms around them as if to perform a sort of ceremonial act of recognition.

These bronze works are created from the inside-out, cast from stone and then dug out and into as curved domes are scooped from the mould. In their stoic solidity they still possess reminders of their stone-past. And it is here again that we are stretched back in time playing dot-to-dot between nature’s unravelling patterns and forms. References have been made in the past to ancient monument and architecture, likening the eternal nature of Randall-Page’s use of stone to that of the Pyramids, the Parthenon or Stonehenge.14 Yet, for all the importance of materiality – stone, clay, ink and pencil – they are simply vehicles for his essential subject: nature.

A keen and much documented interest in the Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Thompson offers much by way of explanation for Randall-Page’s understanding of the world around him.15 Expanding on the Darwinian theory of natural selection, Thompson introduces a new notion of adaptation, linking organic and living entities together through the principle of underlying and pervasive patterns and forms that exist throughout. Adapting, mutating and re-inventing, these structures return again and again creating a ‘dance between geometry and organism’.16

Linked to this notion of archetypal patterns is that of symmetry, another recurring feature throughout Randall-Page’s work. It can be seen in the enormous span of the wall-mounted Wing based on a microscopic study of a grasshopper wing. The faded russet of terracotta tiles seemingly balance precariously on the wall, yet their dried-out, baked surfaces, tired and worn, suggest a heaviness that negates any hope of flight. Inspired simultaneously by Euclidean geometry and Roschbach’s inkblot theory these symmetrical works have been compared to the cross section of a brain scan.17 The deeply gouged channels between each piece could also bear more than a passing resemblance to the white expanses between the irregular passageways of his large ink drawings.

Here though, in the bright light of the gallery, it most immediately resembles a complex jigsaw laid out and ready to be pieced back together (though perhaps this is an unavoidable result of witnessing its installation). However, this notion of ‘putting back together’, or joining the dots, can be seen throughout Randall-Page’s work. Whether carving or casting, tipping and tilting, adding or subtracting material, there is an underlying aim to unravel, uncoil, adapt and play, yet without losing sight of nature’s template.

Graft, grapple, strain, contort, mould, drill, chisel, shape and shorn. Layer, pattern, fold, twist and turn. These are not works that appear from nowhere. Upon and beneath the surface of each work is the evidence of human-hands, time present and time past. There is the earth and the sky, the movement upwards, taking flight, and the drilling down, through soil and stone – and then between the water, flowing.

1 Ball, Phillip, Upside Down & Inside Out, (Pangolin: London, 2014), ex. cat, page 5
2 Swift, Graham, Waterland, (Picador: London, revised edition 1992), page 18
3 Sorber, Frieda, ‘Nature Improved’ in Birds of Paradise: Plumes and Feathers in Fashion, exh. cat, MoMu. Antwerp, Lannoo Publishing, page 187
4 Østermark-Johansen, Walter Pater and the Language of Sculpture, (Ashgate Publishing Ltd: Farnham, 2011), page 18
5 Marble sculpture unearthed in Rome in 1506 depicting the Trojan Prince Laocoön and his two sons writhing in the grip of a serpent. Comparison made by Collins, Judith, Lure, exh. cat (All Visual Arts: London, 2013)
6 Swift, 1992, page 15
7 MccGwire, Kate, video interview for Disquiet exhibition at Le Royal Monceau – Raffles, Paris, Ed. Astrid de Cazelet, 2013 http://www.katemccgwire.com/index.php?pid=120&press_nav_id=62
8 Reference first made by MccGwire, Kate, ‘Ruffling Feathers’, Selvedge, interview by Jessica Hemmings, 2013
9 MccGwire, Kate, ‘Alternative Ornithologies – When Feathers come to Life’, Antennae, 2012
10 Drix, Emmanuelle, ‘Feathers in 1930s Cinematic Costume’ in Birds of Paradise: Plumes and Feathers in Fashion, exh. cat. MoMu. Antwerp, Lannoo Publishing, page 87
11 Ball, 2014, page 5
12 Randall-Page, Peter, Between Melting and Freezing, artist interview film for Millennium Gallery, St Ives, 2015 http://www.peterrandall-page.com/news/news_interviews.html
13 Randall-Page, Peter, interview with Deborah Blakeley, Zone One Arts, 2015, http://zoneonearts.com.au/peter-randall-page
14 Warner, Marina, ‘Stone Flow / Cloud Rock’ in Peter Randall-Page at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, exh. cat, 2009, page 8
15 Ball offers a more detailed and insightful interpretation of Randall-Page’s understanding of Thompson’s theory, 2004, pages 3-9
16 Ball, 2004, page 5
17 Randall-Page, Peter ‘Peter Randall-Page in Conversation Clare Lilley’ in Peter Randall-Page at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, exh. cat, 2009, page 13

Image Credit: Brawl, Kate MccGwire, 2014, Mixed media with pheasant feathers in an antique dome – Photo JP Bland © Kate MccGwire.

 

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