21 January 2011

Humanity and Nature: The Porcelain of Kate MacDowell

CUCKOO - Picture courtesy Gallery Vannessa Quang
Is it possible for art to be creepy and cute at the same time? Certainly when you see the porcelain art of Kate MacDowell in to account you are struck by two things.  There is an breathtaking beauty in her attention to detail of our animal friends.  Yet, many of the animals that she portrays are distinctly dead – already on the slab and undergoing a porcelain necropsy.

MICE AND MEN - Picture Courtesy Gallery Vanessa Quang
When you think about it our relationship with nature goes back way before human history – cave paintings drawn by prehistoric people in what they no doubt did not refer to as their leisure time show our intimacy with the natural world.  Tens of thousands of years later MacDowell extends that tradition.

INVASIVE FLORA - Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
Yet all those many thousands of years ago we hunted and we gathered.  We retain a rather idealistic impression of our union with nature in an age when our impact on our environment has never been so great or so harmful.  MacDowell’s pieces reflect this dichotomy – we are the ultimate environmental stressor.  We pollute, change the climate and introduce GM crops.

TAKING ROOT, Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
CASUALTY - Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
Our global society’s sometime refusal to admit there is a relationship between what our species does and the impact those actions may have on the rest of the natural world are beautifully captured in a frozen metaphor of porcelain.

BUZZ - Picture courtesy Gallery Vanessa Quang
Our relationship with nature has fractured; it is now one of uneasiness and – to an extent – one of guilt.  Yet by the inclusion of human body parts in these works, what MacDowell is saying is that we are also under threat.  This is the point where the victimiser becomes the victim too.

DAPHNE, detail, picture courtesy of StudioVanessa Quang
The nymph Daphne.  In Ovid's Metapmorphoses she is pursued by Apollo. Determined not to have her honor taken from her she appeals to the gods for help.  She is transformed: a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Here, thousands of years later the tree in to which she was transformed is felled and the shattered nymph revealed again.

DAPHNE - Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
The composition of many of her pieces is quite extraordinary.  A chaotic jumble from a distance becomes a scene of wonder. 

STILLBORN, Picture courtesy Gallery Vanessa Quang
Whether this work presages looming catastrophe or is a plainer metaphor for the common fate every living being shares is entirely up to the viewer.  Yet the anthropomorphic aspect of MacDowell’s work blurs the difference between the species.  While we have the potential to bring about a cataclysm we will ultimately partake of it ourselves.

LOCUSTS - Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
The choice of porcelain is important.  While it underpins her subjects with a sense of frailty it also gives them an untouchable, almost virginal air.  Life is delicate, fine and beautiful.  In death there is brutality but also peace.

BADGERED - Picture courtesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
It is easy to become somewhat disquieted with MacDowell’s work.  After all, these figures are so accurately created it is almost as if they are dead (or alive) in front of us – it almost makes us the one performing the autopsy.

TASTE - Picture courstesy of Gallery Vanessa Quang
The full bloom of youth inclines us to take a closer look and we find ourselves trapped in the spotlights of mortality.  A nice trick and one which is beautifully executed – and not without humor either.

Complete ecosystems seem to bleed from the porcelain. MacDowell’s art shows that we are inextricable linked to nature.  What it does too, however, is to admonish and to warn.  MacDowell however does not make a judgement – we make it for ourselves through her art.

A BILLION HEARTBEATS - Picture courtsey Gallery Vanessa Quang

You can find many more examples of Kate MacDowell's porcelain work at her website.

Kuriositas would like to thank Victor de Bonnecaze at Gallery Vanessa Quang for their kind permission to use the above pictures.