You are here
Michele McFarland's stick and bitumen horse inevitably became the focus of her recent exhibition. This horse, much larger than the other pieces, was placed in the centre of the small 'landing space' area and was the only work to have its own plinth. Horses, or shadows of her own horse sculptures, formed the basis of all the works.
Horses have always held a fascination for McFarland. She collects small images or models of them but insists: "They must have a specialness." She is not interested in literal representations but in stylized forms, especially if they carry historical and cultural connotations.
A feeling of specialness, mystery and antiquity was resonant in the main sculpture. This tail-less, stump-footed creature had the obviousness but also the sense of integrity of some traditional cultural objects. Entirely covered with broken gum tree sticks, the texture was so compelling one could feel its crunchy surface as though stroking it with the eye. The organic material: sticks arranged like fur, encouraged both a physical and an emotional response.
Other works included a number of small, stick covered, horse sculptures suspended from wires above the main piece, and like it, these figures were both simplified and bent unnaturally, heads twisted in impossible contortions. Sharp shadows thrown by these sculptures, before the sticks were added, were used as the basis for most of McFarland's other works in the show: drawings, wall and floor pieces. The floor and wall pieces all incorporated sticks and bitumen to explore pattern and texture. Colour, both positive and negative relief patterning, sawn up pieces of dowel dyed with bitumen and turpentine, pale match-like wood and found sharpened stick-ends were all used to enliven the surfaces.
While it is obvious that McFarland is inventive in her use of materials, individually these works lacked authority. The rectangular 'stick framed' shadow pictures had a kind of kitsch charm, but the floor pieces, away from the horses which inspired them, could seem too removed from any point of reference to command attention in their own right. As a group though, these works support each other as parts of a whole. The convoluted patterning of the floor pieces and the simplicity of the drawings: negatives of shadows of the suspended horses, all formed a chorus to the unadorned protagonist.
The effect was that of a primitive burial shrine. The central horse was like a totem; the shadow pieces and drawings were its echoes, re-stating, re-enforcing, and re-invoking its magic. The simplified shapes, as in traditional art, emphasized the essence instead of the superficial: the is-ness, not the like-ness.
The collected icons and artifacts of the Egyptian pyramids; the bitumen-like tar of the bog preserved, ritually-killed, Northern Europeans; the voodoo dolls of West Africa-these all came to mind in McFarland's small arrangement of horses. But in addition to the symbolism of death there was also an intensely female association with fertility and birth. The main horse carried a miniature one, suspended on wire like the others, but dangling from its belly and attached to a small crank. The small horses and shadow images had a foetal aspect to them but again, death was present: "little abortions" someone said of them.
Ritual and tradition seemed to emanate from the work: corn dollies, children's toys, The Trojan horse, burial rites, witchcraft, idols, fetishes and charms. The animal as vessel, as mother, as totem, these ideas arose from the central piece and were re-emphasized by the others. But it was the central sculpture which was mainly responsible for these waves of association and which amid the chorus remained quiet and self-contained.