Kate MccGwire: Glamorous Bait for a Merciless Trap

What sort of cold-blooded beast is this?

Measuring ten meters long and towering overhead, a muscled, thick mass covered in iridescent black feathers swirls around itself and then dives into itself. Snaking out of the wall as if from a hell-like sewer, Gyre twists with the writhing energy of a sex-drunk lover. Seductive and nightmarish, intricately beautiful and somehow dangerous, the massive sculpture captures the sexy and eerie tone of Kate MccGwire’s exhibition at London’s All Visual Arts. More strange forms dot around the white space and carefully constructed, intimate works adorn the walls – all are as strangely feathered as they are indisputably dark. The alien-like sculptures are placed elegantly on display like taxidermied scientific specimen: under the heavy glass of antique bell jars and behind the doors of dark wooden cabinets. Due to the English winter chill, the icy hollow of the gallery feels like a sterile meat locker for a twisted collection of frozen monster parts.

Gyre (Installation). Mixed media with crow feathers. Photo courtesy of Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts.

Appropriately named Lure, the title of the exhibition suggests that enchanting beauty is merely a veil for mortal danger, and that death can lurk behind some of life’s most dazzling enticements. A feathered fishing lure is, after all, glamorous bait for a merciless trap. Some of the feathery forms are secured with industrial, oversized clamps, their size and heft suggesting that the sinister work could re-animate and attempt escape (or worse?) at any given moment. One wall sculpture, called Host VII, has a shape that echoes the body of a woman: two rounded, stacked budges held together like a feathered corset. Yet, these feathers stand up in rows, creating flickering harrows in place of pleats. The gray pigeon feathers have rough, broken edges, and up close look more like lethal, jagged razors – as if anyone persuaded to stroke this curvaceous form would pull away with a handful of blood. Equally as enchanting and tempting to touch, two white works made of feather quills resemble sea anemones waving luxuriously in the seawater. Surge (Corvus) and Surge (Columba) may look like harmless and velvety sea life, but I am also reminded that such creatures often deliver deadly stings to unwelcomed trespassers.

Host VII. Pigeon tail feather and felt on wood. Photo courtsey of Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts.

Surge (Columba), 2012. Pigeon quills on board, framed. Photo courtesy of Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts

The artist’s Stigma series is also incredibly intriguing, wrought with a myriad of references and made with an unusual yet familiar combination of elements: lead and feathers. This pairing no doubt brings to mind the age-old riddle, ‘What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?’ This riddle evokes and disturbs the assumptions we hold on such self-defining elements and speaks to the artist’s ability to change the inherent nature of such materials in her work. With the Stigma series, graphite gray sheets of patinated lead are pierced with wound-like ovals. Recalling the injured and burnt canvases of Alberto Burri, the scarred works suggest past violence and, as the titles suggest, are adorned with horrifying yet divine Stigmata. The lesions are also reminiscent of Hagfish mouths, and bits of feathers circle like rows of teeth. Awaiting like Venus fly-traps, a potential for violence also lurks beneath.

Stigma (Smirch), 2012. Mixed media with pigeon tail feathers and lead, framed. Photo courtesy of Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts.

Rebecca Horn, Cockfeather Mask, 1973. Photo courtesy of Tate.

For all the violence, danger and disturbing nature of the seductive works on display, there is an undeniable sense of sensuality, sex and explicit naughtiness throughout the exhibition. Chains, leather and latex may be absent, but feathers, ropes and metal clamps stand brazenly in their place. Splice, a mounted, black, feathered braid, certainly suggests an often fetish-ized hairdo as well as a phallis, and Beguile, a small sculpture under glass, seems to be furtively tickling its own flipped and exposed underside. The stigmata of the lead works also sordidly recall alluring body orifices or the infamous vagina-dentada if you equate the spiked feathers with teeth. The sometimes naughty works of Rebecca Horn instantly come to mind, an artist who often made wearable, fetishistic feathered devices. Oozing with sensual energy and made to explore human intimacy, Horn’s works also equated human sexual displays to that of exotic fowl. With MccGwire, a large form in a cabinet, Cleave, is especially aesthetically sexual. It is unique it that it is covered in bright white feathers, a hint of innocence supported by the heart-like shape. Yet, the heart becomes inextricably female in form: kneeling, bending over or arching back while the opposite side of the sculpture seems to bulge and then thrust inside itself again.  The cleaved swells all exude from the figure’s axis: a clitorial center, tucked away and marked by a cluster of nerve-ending quills.

Cleave, 2012. Mixed media with dove/pigeon feathers/quills in antique cabinet. Photo by Tessa Angus. Photo courtesy of the Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts.

Cleave (Detail), 2012. Photo by Tessa Angus. Photo courtesy of the Kate MccGwire and All Visual Arts.

MccGwire’s exhibition presents a delightfully tabooed feast for the eyes. Linking sex with death and desire with disgust, Lure hits at the very heart of Eroticism, meaning, the blending of such seemingly disparate objects in a climatic convergence, expressing the very height of the human sexual experience. Georges Bataille would say death is hypnotising. I would agree; but I would also suggest, it is also probably covered in feathers.

Kate MccGwire: Lure

On view from November 23, 2012 – January 26, 2013

All Visual Arts, 2 Omega Place, Kings Cross, London N1 9DR