The Eyes of the Skin
By Kathleen Soriano
catalogue essay for The Eyes of the Skin
Agnew's Gallery, November 9th - December 2nd 2011
A first encounter with the work of artist Susie MacMurray inevitably places the viewer right at the centre of the key issue in her work - the tension between extremes of sensual and aesthetic response: Ying/yang; anima/animus; soft/hard; a dress/not a dress; love/death; freedom/constraint; power/submission. The seduction of her pieces draws you to them with a lightness of touch that belies their complexity and, more often than not, their aggressive, confrontational qualities that deny their commentary on difficult issues such as anorexia, mortality and bereavement.
Her work, most particularly her installations, are immersive, part spectacle and drama. The sense of performance comes from MacMurray's first life in which she was a bassoonist with the Halle and the Gulbenkian Orchestras. The nature of a shared theatricality with the orchestra members has continued in her own art practice and production methods. Not believing herself to be a natural musical performer, MacMurray felt the lack of creative space for her own contribution in playing someone else's music, in a manner dictated by someone other than herself, the conductor. It was this departure from her life as a professional musician that allowed MacMurray to search for opportunities for answers to her own questions, to travel her own journeys and to make her own exploration of the creative paths that lay ahead of her, and is also why, to her mind, the primacy of the object, or the creative act, and the direct experience of it remains paramount.
Music is also in part responsible for her ambitions to create the immersive. The experience of sitting at the centre of a Richard Strauss performance with music physically coursing through her body provoked her to understand that ‘intellectual ideas and understanding are important, but it means nothing if it doesn't get you on a visceral level' and, as she goes on to say ‘what is the point of making art that you can completely explain through words?'. That sense of the haptic, that demand for the physical experience, the call to touch that emanates from her objects, notes the vibrations that her works seek to cause in all of us. It also sees her transform the humble into the monumental as we see in her exquisite hairnet drawings in this exhibition, each work involving a level of attention to detail and delicacy more akin to love than to the mechanical activity of creating the pieces.
MacMurray's first explorations in the early 2000's were largely focussed on installations, often as a contemporary response to something historic or the resonance of a memory, working with notions of scale, and more specifically ‘found' objects in volume. For example, her first installation in Salford, Stratum (2000), saw her fill an attic space of Islington Mill knee deep with 40kg of goose down feathers, clearly referencing dreams and the unconscious, as she struggled to consider the development of her own practice in providing meaning to everyday objects. Through this installation MacMurray realised that not only was the work - the sculpture, the installation - important to her, but that it was deeply linked to place, to site. Subsequent pieces at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, York City Art Gallery and at the National Trust Property Kedleston Hall showed a growing confidence in her work. This recent body of material shown in this exhibition has allowed MacMurray to step away from the value of location, context and installation and move back to the uniqueness of the independent artwork, be it a monumental ink drawing of hair nets or the Feast ‘pod' pieces.
Feast is a good work to consider when trying to comprehend MacMurray's routes to her work. It is essentially a narrative piece, taken from a specific incident when MacMurray had made an early iteration of this piece, a small bird's house wrapped again and again in clingfilm, which was transported through US customs for an exhibition in Los Angeles. With the bird's house totally obscured by the layers and layers of clingfilm wrapping, and being confronted with an object that appeared to be an illegal container of some kind, the customs officers decided to slice through this work of art in order to determine its contents. In Feast we see MacMurray returning to the moment, storytelling, but taking it to macabre lengths so that we are confronted with a swarm, a cluster of pods that are almost edible, but clearly not, and that take an apparent physiognomic form.
The presence of a strong narrative, sits almost as importantly alongside the use of what is essentially a domestic material - clingfilm. Whilst MacMurray does not see herself as a gender-focussed artist, or one that is overly concerned with the domestic, it is interesting to note that over the years her work has made use of what are essentially feminised objects: rubber gloves, hairnets, net curtains, feathers, thread, velvet, human hair. At times her work takes on an overtly sexual and deeply sensual view, as seen in her Venice Lagoon drawings and in Shell (2006/7) where the 20,000 gently gaping mussel shells, filled with red velvet that falls seductively from the opening, on the walls of the staircase at Pallant House. Although the act of collecting the shells in volume from a restaurant in Chester once a week and then spending hours cleaning them, also takes us back to the rigourously domestic, so that the creation of the piece becomes as important as the final object itself. Whilst she has not consciously sought them out, her sexual references and use of feminised materials positions her alongside major women artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager, Rebecca Horn, Helen Chadwick, Ann Hamilton, Eva Hesse and the artists of the Arte Povera movement. It is clear that they also share a common interest in things of the body, as well as an interest in the transformation of common objects into something other.
MacMurray is fascinated by these moments of change and alchemy, where the point of transition from one thing into another is manifest. As we see in the duality and tensions in her work, she is constantly seeking the material manifestation at the edge between things. When is it that objects tip from one thing into another? From the familiar to the unfamiliar? MacMurray seeks to subvert her materials, to contain that moment when we tip into chaos, that moment of frisson when levels of energy are at their strongest and most creative.
In exploring these edges, MacMurray is constantly ‘picking away, trying to understand how we can cope with being, with the human condition', and ultimately with mortality. Her balloon dress sculptures, with the latex of the balloons acting as a metaphor for skin, flesh, the body, speak of death. MacMurray's husband John died in 2006, and that profound experience has influenced much of her recent work, from Widow in 2009, where she individually inserted 43kg of adamantine dressmaker pins painstakingly through a black leather skin forming a seductively glittering evening dress, of human scale, that draws you to the touch yet immediately repels you with its sharp, cold, aggressive points, to the clingfilm pieces that speak of the desire to protect, to cover with love. That very act of wrapping however provides that dual tension that is familiar in MacMurray's work. On the one hand it encases and protects what is within, yet on the other it is in danger of smothering and destroying the very object that it strives to protect. Once again we see MacMurray fascinated by the tensions between building a wall around someone, or something, to protect them and the function of that protection acting as a trap, a confinement.
At times however, those materials are less about sealing the world around us but more about repair and catharsis. The hairnets and the net curtains, featuring in her work at around the time of John's death, represented a time of healing and a celebration of life as that sense of wonder and ability to ask ‘her' questions again came to the fore. The fact that the hairnets act as gentle receptacles was also important to MacMurray. The careful containment of precious elements, the head and the brain (mind?) even, represented for MacMurray the presence of the unconscious allowing her to give expression to her interest in the other, the macabre. Here too she was always exploring the tensions between having to conform on the outside (be it to expectations of being a widow, a mother, an artist) whilst on the inside feeling very unlike, very different to the role that she externally presented.
That otherness also emerges in the aggressive nature of many of her pieces, often at odds with the apparent delicacy and fragility of them. A fragility that she often embraces as we see in the title of one of her dress sculptures, A Mixture of Frailties, where thousands of gloves are turned inside out to reveal their pale downy interior. Like flayed skin, they are testament to the vulnerability of humankind. It also speaks to a particularly feminine experience, that is the marital exchange: the bridal gown is ironically constructed out of household gloves in a kind of cautionary tale about domestic reality.
Her series of work Maiden, with delicate yet malevolent fish hooks threaded onto human hair, considers the essence of being female. Whilst once again the objects are aesthetically seductive, it is only on closer consideration that their violent nature becomes apparent. In simple terms MacMurray is exploring the notion of ‘being a catch' of women ‘getting their hooks into you', and in a proposed new iteration of that work that will involve a punch bag we begin to wonder whether her raw emotion is currently sitting right at the surface of her art.
The macabre aside, there is a generosity in MacMurray's work that is palpable but that extends to the way in which she has worked on large installations of her work. Possibly stemming from her work in orchestras, she enjoys shared group working. Her large scale installations have always required the help of many hands, in preparation and installation, and MacMurray has used those opportunities to develop her own thinking around her work as she discusses and makes it alongside younger artists, but also to mentor them and to encourage them to talk more about their own work. These private moments, emerging only because of a focussed engagement in the physical act of making a work, transcend the everyday and recognise MacMurray's use of nurturing tendencies in the actual making of her work.
The beauty of MacMurray's work occasionally belies the power and strength held within it. Whilst the sense of loss has nearly always been present in her work, it is also as much about the nature of memories and remnants of our existence. She gathers and gives new life and meaning to lost hair, fallen violin bow hair, harp strings, to a loss of time and tradition - as we see her installations strive to capture the stories of the past, be it the lives of National Trust properties or the flint walls of the Sussex towns and villages as in Shell. These strings of our experience carry the memories of our lives, our talismans that MacMurray would argue need to be considered in Buddhist terms as part of the bigger flow, where we recognise that all things pass, whether in a minute or in a million years, so that we resist being paralysed by the possibilities of loss. That does not stop her from exploring that loss within her work but we should not be seduced by the vulnerability that it suggests given her position as artist with the control and authority that she has over the interpretation of that loss, and ultimately in the powerful and confident position that those pieces now assume.
Director of Exhibitions, Royal Academy of Arts
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