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The Beauty of Death: Leith Maguire and the Phaethon Series
“This is very ancient land, and its forms and its general psychology are so intriguing as compared to the other countries of the world that it in itself is surprising.”
Russell Drysdale (1960, quoted York, 1999)
In 2013, Queensland-born artist Leith Maguire was accepted into the prestigious Hill End residency, where renowned artists such as Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley and Brett Whiteley spent time developing their art practices and drawing inspiration from the unique environment (Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, n.d.). Maguire followed in their illustrious footsteps when she spent one month at Hill End experimenting and refining her art-making techniques and processes in the stimulating surroundings. ‘Having the physical and mental space to really focus on making, to let go and experiment with different ways of working, was invaluable’, Maguire observes (Barton, 2013).
Graduating from a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2007 and currently studying a Master of Cultural Materials Conservation (Maguire, n.d.), Maguire has always had a keen interest in art as a mode of expressing the cycle of life and death within nature. When she became aware of the residency opportunity at Hill End, she was eager to discover ‘why the village, the people and the landscape around the area had inspired such prolific creative output’ (Barton, 2013), and how they would change and inform her practice.
Hill End’s inherent cyclic narrative of life, death and hardship that ‘stemmed from the boom and bust of the gold rush period’ (Barton, 2013), intrigued Maguire and served as a catalyst for her most recent body of work. Her ‘Phaethon’ series (2013), with imagery of malnourished, dying animals and barren, crawling landscapes, draws parallels to the Ancient Greek Myth of Phaethon, son of Helios, who rides the horse-drawn chariot of the sun across the sky. In the legend, Phaethon loses control of the chariot and sets the entire earth on fire. Maguire draws a correlation between the narrative content and vivid imagery of the flaming world with the figures and landscapes in her drawings.
The ‘Phaethon’ series, as with other individual works of Maguire’s, challenges preconceived ideas about death within art. While death can be dealt with in melodramatic, or even garish and ostentatious ways, as evident in Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) with its diamond-encrusted skull, Maguire’s works do not need to enlist that same sense of extremism to gain a reaction from the audience. The power that flows so intensely from her work emerges from the sensitivity and lightness of touch with which she approaches her subjects. She explores, through her drawings of dying animals, the tension that lies between the transience of beauty and the macabre vulgarity of corpses and death.
Maguire utilises a Japanese aesthetic of balance in the forms of her rural landscape by juxtaposing calligraphic sparseness and a ghosting effect with highly detailed, intricately-wrought areas. Maguire explains, ‘I get a lot of pleasure from looking at negative space. I think it’s as important, and says as much, as the highly detailed areas in a work of art’ (Barton, 2013). Her deftness of touch has helped to build this harmonious yet powerful relationship between the dark and light, and the negative and positive spaces in her work. The two extremes leave the viewer teetering on the edge of a taught violin string. They are caught by the beguiling alchemy that suspends them between the poignancy and vulnerable fragility of life, and the overpowering, ‘kick-in-the-guts’ reality of death.
The spontaneity in Maguire’s work prevents it from becoming overtly tortured when portraying the deaths of animals. Her expressive pen-strokes meander and flick across the page like a weaving thread. While she uses photographs and ‘a healthy dose of creative license’ (Barton, 2013) to produce her illustrations of bison, as in her work Untitled 1 (2013), she was able to draw the horses from life after a serendipitous encounter with a dying animal during her residency at Hill End. There is an impulsivity and physicality to Maguire’s work, where accidents often form an integral part of the drawing’s composition and meaning. ‘[Drawing is] mostly a sensory thing for me—I love the feel and the sound of the pen against the tooth of the paper’, explains Maguire, ‘and those happy accidents where the nib catches or clogs and you get an almighty spray of ink over the page. It’s quite cathartic’ (Barton, 2013).
Art is a lens to perceive the world through, and Maguire is able to move her audience emotively, with the incredible skill and beauty in which she portrays life and death within nature. While other artists prefer to hit their audience over the head with a sledgehammer just for ‘shock value’, Maguire stands out for the intense sensibility and delicacy in her illustrations.
A type of pseudo-intellectualism has been forging its way into the art stratosphere, and has left many young people disengaged with art as a form of expression. Overthinking and over-intellectualising art has become the only way to find an ‘entry point’ into a piece of work, and skill in art-making has become miserably undervalued. The whole concept of ‘art’ is now even becoming commodified and commercialised with TV programs searching for ‘The Next Great Artist’.
There is something within Maguire’s work that, while being unnerving, is in the same moment, quiet and shockingly beautiful. The dying animals in her works lie tense and quivering towards death. Their solemn faces are worn like crinkled paper and their downcast eyes express only a sad understanding. Maguire’s illustrations have so many interesting facets that allow the audience a way to emotionally and intellectually engage with her work. She confronts the viewer, making them contemplate the nature of their own mortality and ‘the way living things exist in, and move through the world’ (Barton, 2013). It is refreshing to see a return to the eternal truths that encompass us all and pose questions about our land and the place that life, death and beauty have within it.
Untitled 1 (Phaethon series), 2013. Ink on paper, 30 x 42cm. Photography by Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery.
Untitled 5 (Phaethon series), 2013. Ink on paper,30 x 42cm. Photography by Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery.
Barton, L., Leith Maguire in Conversation, Interview, 21 October 2013.
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Hill End, n.d. Retreived October 2013 from http://www.bathurstart.com.au/hillend.html
Leith Maguire, ‘About’. Retreived October 2013 from http://www.leithmaguire.com/about.html
York, B., Speaking of Us: Voices for Twentieth-century Australia, 1999. National Library of Australia, Canberra.