Kate MacDowell sculpts partially dissected frogs, decaying bodies with exposed skeletons, and viscera invaded by tentacles or ants. It’s the imagery of nightmares, death metal music videos, or that tunnel scene in the original Willy Wonka (not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. . . ). But her medium – minimalist, translucent white porcelain – renders her viscerally disturbing subject matter graceful, even elegant. Some of her pieces, like Sparrow, below, play off the porcelain’s resemblance to delicate bleached bone. In others, the permanence of the porcelain generates tension with the ephemeral forms it depicts – like insects, leaves, and flowers.
MacDowell’s work explores how the “romantic ideal of union with the natural world conflicts with our contemporary impact on the environment.” In Sparrow, the chimera of a human skeleton inside a broken bird-body has an apparently clear message: what we do to our world, we do to ourselves. We are biologically and ecologically interrelated. But in other pieces, like the installation Quiet as a Mouse, the message is not so clear.
MacDowell explains that this sculpture
is based on images of the Vacanti mouse which became an online visual meme and sparked heated discussion about genetic engineering, animal testing and various related ideas, often based on a misunderstanding of the image that was further distorted by the online game of telephone (for example, human genetic material was not used in the experiment, the “ear” was a synthetic construct).
Though the ear-mouse is at first glance a real-world embodiment of MacDowell’s human-animal chimeras, that’s only the (incorrect) interpretation the public readily placed on it. Yes, it was a mouse with a genetically compromised immune system, but it was not genetically engineered to grow a human ear, nor were human cells used in the ear. Rather, it carried the illusion of a human ear – a proof of concept, a biomedical tool intended to eventually transform our own bodies. Thinking about how the ear-mouse was misunderstood/understood by the public prompts us to consider where our own first reactions to MacDowell’s other artworks are justified, or if we need to look again.
Kate MacDowell graciously agreed to answer a few questions about how she uses anatomical and biological imagery in her work; her answers (and more of her work) are below the fold.
hand built porcelain, cone 6 glaze
BioE: I’d love to share with my readers how you first became inspired to incorporate such a broad swath of anatomical imagery into your work. I see from your resume that you are not a biologist by training; how did you develop your eye for anatomical accuracy – dissections, study from specimens, etc.?
K MacD: Most of it is from observation and having sketched from life since I was a teenager. That made the transition into sculpting natural forms much easier. I have taken a figure sculpting class that focused on the human body – skeletal systems and muscle groups, and what I generally do when sculpting an animal is to go online to google images and collect source pictures of the forms I’m going to be sculpting, from as many angles as possible. I also do a little reading about the environmental issue or case study I’m exploring in order to understand it more deeply.
K MacD: I make sure to find scientific drawings as well as both professional and snapshot photographs. Diagrams of skeletal systems are especially good for figuring out proportions, because they are the framework that I can then build the muscle/fat/fur around. I really haven’t done any dissections or taken post-high school biology classes. Occasionally I will have an actual animal skull to study, or a trout I can buy at the supermarket or something, and plants are fairly easy to substitute for one another (when taking impressions of leaf veins, for example). I also have a lot of plastic miniature animal toys that help with basic proportions in 3d.
hand built porcelain, cone 6 glazes, acrylic gel, halogen light, wiring
BioE: To what extent do you think your chosen medium mitigates (or dilutes) the instinctive distaste many people have for cadavers/exposed viscera, and how do you use that in your work?
K MacD: I purposely like to use the conflict caused by the pairing of beauty with the macabre or grotesque in my work to evoke an (often conflicted) emotional response so that viewers will spend more time with the piece. By making the pieces out of delicate white porcelain, with a classical/baroque style more often seen in marble sculpture it does invite people closer to spend more time studying the forms and textures without being instinctively turned off by lots of slippery red meat. Often they miss the darker messages until this closer inspection. I like that there is sometimes a bit of a time lag in responses to my work, then lot’s of “ewws” and some smiles and laughs.
Kate’s Quiet as a Mouse installation will be on view in the “Night Blooming Stock” group exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, opening Sept. 14th. You can also see her work on the cover of Erasure’s new album “Tomorrow’s World”, designed by Tom Hingston, as well as on their single covers – Hingston colorized her white sculptures to interesting effect (here’s a fan-made video juxtaposing the single cover with the original Solastalgia).
All artworks reproduced here with Kate MacDowell’s permission. If you would like to buy or use one of these pieces, please contact her directly.