Kate MccGwire:

Kate MccGwire, Cavort, 2020. Mixed media with pheasant feathers. Photo Jonty Wilde.

During an unprecedented moment when our sense of touch has become compromised, an exhibition that rejoices in tactility and aesthetic embrace feels like forbidden fruit. Yet, writing through the feathers of sculptor Kate MccGwire has bestowed on me a heightened sensitivity to the continuity of the seasons, as birds continue to nest and take wing. Chiefly known for her intricate and labour-intensive feather sculptures, MccGwire’s practice brings to mind the ecocritical theory of Donna Haraway, particularly the idea that a dialogue with other species can remind us of our social responsibilities. Haraway argues that when we ‘touch’ animals, we are simultaneously touching generations of history.1

Harewood House, an eighteenth-century house on the outskirts of Leeds, part of the Treasure Houses of England, was recently due to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its Bird Garden, a sanctuary for rare and endangered species, including starlings, cockatoos, parrots, flamingos, and penguins. To coincide with such fanfare, MccGwire presents an apt curatorial choice for their well-established contemporary art programme. She is seen as one of the leading proponents of the ‘curiosities revival’ alongside artists such as Mark Dion, Matt Collishaw and Viktor Wynd, among other artists and collectors with a fascination for reactivating historical artifice, from taxidermic specimens to philosophical toys. This undeniably disparate set of practices are united in their quest for alternative views of the early modern period in contemporary terms. Here, it is the notion of the colonial menagerie which is undergoing a reassessment. The exhibition coincides with Harewood House issuing a public acknowledgement of its historical foundations, part of its ongoing work to acknowledge its association with the Caribbean sugar industry and slave trade, and the site-specificity of MccGwire’s work gives room for pause.

Having first witnessed her work alongside the entomological fairy specimens of Tessa Farmer and narrative drawings by Rachel Goodyear in House of Beasts at Attingham Park (2012), I am interested in how MccGwire’s work continues to shape and arguably steer animal art and social critique in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The resulting exhibition demonstrates the infinite possibilities of inviting contemporary artists to site-specifically reinvigorate stately homes, offering revisionary ways of understanding historical collections of zoology as well as, in this case, Turner paintings and Chippendale furniture housed within architecture by Robert Adam, manicured gardens by Charles Barry and landscape by Capability Brown. MccGwire reflects on such a catalogue of canonical cognoscenti. Among all this grandeur, her penchant for feathers (pigeon, dove, magpie and pheasant) as her chief medium lures us into reconsidering so-called ‘common’ birds anew, be it the multiplicity of their patterns or their secretive, iridescent qualities.

Kate MccGwire, ‘Discharge’ (2015). Mixed media installation with pigeon feathers. Photo Jonty Wilde.

Menagerie at Harewood House redefines the notion of exquisite beauty through eight carefully positioned sculptural exhibits. ‘Cavort’ (2020) in The Yellow Drawing Room is surely the focal point or compass for this show, a newly commissioned ‘flying carpet’ responding to the sheer opulence of its setting: the acanthus leaf stucco ceiling, sumptuous furnishings and myriad bird motifs. One section represents the Axminster carpet which is not currently on display for conservation reasons. Comprising an array of meticulously prepared pheasant feathers, ‘Cavort’ plays with mirror reflections and symmetrical relationships through a cleverly fabricated, kaleidoscopic configuration that expands the imagery fourfold on either side. MccGwire conjures a mesmerising mosaic of concentric swirls and rhythmic flow, mimicking her interest in twilight murmurations, that colossal flocking or directional swarming that tends to occur in certain bird species around dusk, as if choreographed.

Indeed, the social interactions of shoaling and herding underpin much of MccGwire’s wider aesthetic formula; an obsession with multitude and repetition as the basis for composition, texture and form. A single feather becomes a synecdoche for such precision, the minutiae of shafts and vanes are a microcosmic version of the whole arrangement. This makes the evocation of the kaleidoscope all the more apt, an optical device invented by Scottish scientist David Brewster in 1817, used to concoct a playful vision of colour and form. ‘Cavort’ also enables a closer inspection of the surface patterns of the male pheasant; its glimmering plumes provoke surprising comparisons with reptilian scales or exotic seashells, suggesting a primeval dimension to MccGwire’s sculptures. The installation further invites us to consider what it means for a female artist to use male feathers, and how modes of display have been differently gendered as masculine and feminine throughout evolution and cultural history. She further describes ‘Cavort’ as a ‘flight of fancy’, an opportunity to indulge in her craft and skill.

The three artworks exhibited in The Gallery continue to showcase the versatility of pheasant feathers. ‘Quandary’ (2019), ‘Viscera’ (2018) and ‘Turmoil’ (2016) suggest a trio of beasts, natural curiosities on loan from another domain. Though MccGwire’s artworks are conceptually reliant on the language of appropriation, intervention and postminimalism, they segue effortlessly into the historical surroundings. Her practice becomes an imaginary collecting habit of an eighteenth-century aristocrat returning from their Grand Tour. Her resulting work is the stuff of a Rococo dream, but troubled by an underlying resistance. Often encased under glass bells or inside bespoke, antique-looking vitrines, MccGwire’s sculptural outputs often include museological framing devices. Trapped and writhing, their evocation of movement suggests these are unwilling exhibits that challenge their confines. Indeed, these sculptures remain far from tame, and, on occasion, the artist will dispense with their containment altogether.

Claw-like and monumental, ‘Discharge’ (2015) swoops into The Old Library, cascading out of an architectural apse. There is something epistemological about the curating here, as if the piece had sprung from a fantasy of accumulated knowledge represented by the many leather-bound books. In previous iterations of this installation, the form appeared to pour downward or even dive, as if seeking prey – the benign pigeon transformed into a gigantic and disquieting entity. Here, it is tempting to compare ‘Discharge’ with the billowing paw in Antonio da Correggio’s Renaissance painting ‘Jupiter and Io’ (1532), in which Jupiter envelops himself in a dark cloud to seduce the daughter of Inachus. Or, with the uncanny soft sculptural environments made by the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) in the 1970s.2 There is a similar sense of something looming in this work, a nod to the aesthetic tradition of the sublime.

Such muscular, boa-like forms recur in ‘Paracosm’ (2019), an otherworldly being lurking in The Music Room. The oily, blue sheen of many magpie feathers coil, twist and undulate into the imaginary world of their title. The result is a thought form, at once both a hybrid interlocking creature and a manifestation of our own aesthetic intrigue. The knot-like embrace brings about a mutual metamorphosis in the viewer’s imagination, a cocooning, nesting sensibility associated with hibernation. In the words of art historian Frances S. Connelly, ‘Paracosm’ becomes an expression of the grotesque: ‘a space where the monsters and marvels of our imagination are conceived […] fusing humor with horror, wit with transgression, repulsion with desire’.3 Like an ouroboros or möbius strip, ‘Paracosm’ appears headless in its continuity, a never-ending story fuelled by a corporeal gut instinct.

Meanwhile, in The Dining Room, ‘Stifle’ (2009) and ‘Anima’ (2012) appear as natures mortes or even memento mori, complementing the French porcelain ornamentation and providing talking points for the imaginary dinner guests. Again, such artworks serve as quiet critiques, reminding us that the luxurious and pristine white of dove feathers are really albino pigeons, romanticised commoners. Novelist Heidi Sopinka further notes that pigeons were once ‘brought to the cities to be ornamental’ and that carriers were decorated during wartime.4 MccGwire is preoccupied with their homing instincts, a shrewd intelligence that often goes unnoticed.

Kate MccGwire, ‘Stifle’ (2009) and ‘Anima'(2012). Mixed media installation with pigeon feathers. Photo: Jonty Wilde.

In contrast to the hunting associated with the history of country estates, MccGwire aims to be more sustainable and considered in sourcing her materials. Her feathers are a by-product from registered gamekeepers, farmers and pigeon racers, mainly locally sourced. She works from her studio barge surrounded by kingfishers and other wildlife with a dedicated (all women) team of assistants who help realise her sculptural visions. The artist has developed an intuitive approach to her medium, a tacit knowledge of how certain wing and tail feathers will flow and enmesh. At Harewood House, a further group of volunteers have been integral in sorting and preparing the feathers, especially for the installation ‘Cavort’.

The sculptures of Kate MccGwire are immersed in the language of the literary fairy tale. They remind me of stories by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), a duckling of the Danish court who rose to fame like his majestic swan. The history of fairy tales is one of appropriation from folkloric traditions, and it was often the aristocracy who transformed these tales to make them more palatable for middle/upper class readers. MccGwire’s use of common feathers reverses this tendency as a democratising force, providing something exquisitely crafted that is capable of appealing to visitors of different backgrounds and identity politics. Menagerie invites nature inside and offers a compendium of narrative sculptures that heighten a sensitivity to our own animal selves. Far from serving as devices for escapism, these works operate as profound allegories for our times, and remind us of our own ethics, duty of care and sense of humanity.

Kate MccGwire: Menagerie is at Harewood House until 25 October 2020. 

Catriona McAra is University Curator at Leeds Arts University.

This review is supported by Harwood House Trust. 

[1] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p.41-42.

[2] Victoria Carruthers, ‘Dorothea Tanning and Her Gothic Imagination,’ Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, 5:1–2 (2011), p.149.

[3] Frances S. Connelly, The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.1.

[4] Heidi Sopinka, The Dictionary of Animal Languages (London: Scribe, 2018), p.9.


Published 31.07.2020 by Holly Grange in Reviews

1,653 words