Sculptor Kate MacDowell works within the purity of white porcelain, transforming this pristine and beautiful medium – evoking the smoothness and perfection of white marble (think Grecian goddesses or Michelangelo’s David) – into something darker and more challenging. When we think of crisp, clean whiteness, it conjures up words like ‘good’, ‘light’, even ‘heaven’ perhaps; it is traditionally the immaculate yin to the heavy, mulchy yang of black. You would be forgiven, then, for thinking MacDowell’s creations would explore similarly themed subject matter. Not so; instead, she turns our preconceptions on their head by sterilizing what would, in other mediums, be garish, even gruesome subjects: dissected animals, death, rot, destruction, drawing our attention to, in her words, “both the impermanence and fragility of natural forms in a dying ecosystem”
By using such a clinical medium, MacDowell strips the subject of its visceral impact and permits the viewer to see it in a gentler light, more inviting to deeper consideration. Without the glisten of blood, the black shine of chitin, or the pungent greens of rotting vegetation, we can focus on the lines and shapes, the interplay between soft and hard; it enables us to consider meaning and mortality distinct from its physical and often gory trappings. When presented with, for example, a bird cut open to reveal a tiny human skeleton, we are not immediately repulsed or shocked, but are instead struck by, first, the beauty of the sculpture, and second, by the potentiality of metaphor. Mankind’s destructive relationship with his environment? This is MacDowell’s primary concern, and while this is more obvious in a piece such as a hare wearing a gas mask, other pieces are open to a variety of other, equally profound readings. Encaged by our apparent freedoms? Driven to destruction by them? A relationship between our high-flying dreams and the more harrowing reality of life?
The irony of juxtaposition is one which artists have played on for centuries, but rarely does one come across an artist whose pieces are simultaneously beautiful and hauntingly thought-provoking in equal measure and to such degree; pieces which one could see and enjoy daily, while also serving as a constant reminder of our impact on the world and that we must be mindful of such. MacDowell’s brilliance stems from an understanding that to persuade one does not necessarily need to shock. Shock factor dissipates in minutes; deep contemplation, such as these sculptures elicit, lingers much longer in the brain.