Hal Foster & I: Sheila McGrath

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Contemporary

I am wondering how to be an authentic contemporary artist given that my favourite paintings are mostly pre- or early Renaissance. Serendipitously, in the past two weeks I have been reading Hal Foster’s 1996 essay Obscene, Abject, Traumatic and discovered some connections between what he says about contemporary expressions of the abject and some of the work I have been making.1 While recently developing large sculptural forms with chicken wire and modrock, I found myself interested in the unfinished lower half of the model.

Sheila McGrath

The ridges of the wire beneath the plaster seemed to suggest the fragile outline of the skeleton; the exposed wire brazenly revealed the construction process; and the holes in the chicken wire exposed the interior of the form, asking questions about what lay within. Foster wrote about the breaching of the body and observed that a special truth seems to reside in the diseased or damaged body. He uses as visual examples – Kiki Smith’s exposed backbone on the figure in Blood Pool (1992), Robert Gober’s untitled work where the lower body of a realistic mannequin is pierced with sink holes. The same kind of aesthetic is happening in my piece, although I think for a different reason. Similarly, Foster touched on the work of Mike Kelley, which in part, is the art of the lumpy [related to Lumpen, the German word for rag] and which results in “an art of lumpy things, subjects, and personae that resist shaping, let alone sublimating or redeeming.”2 Brilliant! I have just been making lumps!

Sheila McGrath

These are small pieces of chicken wire again shaped in a random way and covered with modrock, then painted; the colour choices influenced by the work of Franz West. The process was just a matter of playing to see what happened. Stacking the forms and getting them to balance was further fun.

I wondered why and how I had arrived at the place of not only enjoying these forms that once I would have considered crude and thus valueless but also finding meaning in them. It seems that one’s aesthetic sense undergoes a transformation in the process of studying and being exposed to contemporary art, as in the wider sphere, where a culture’s aesthetic values change with the times. As someone said to me, “What would Vasari make of this?” and then went on to add “What would he make of these times and world around us?”

Kelley’s lumps stem purposefully from both contemporary abject art’s infantile interest in excrement and also his ideas about the lumpen, the lowest of the low, used for political purposes. Again, I was not making lumps from those motives, but these ideas about the body, politics and abjection shape the work one is exposed to and influence, consciously or not, one’s production and aesthetic sensibilities. Coming to an understanding of such critical theory as in Hal Foster’s essay not only provides insight into the works of others but gives a departure point for ideas about one’s own practice, even though the focus of my work is not specifically related to theories of abjection.

Sheila McGrath

1. Foster, H. ‘Obscene, Abject, Traumatic’. October, Vol 78 (Autumn 1996), pp 106-124

2. Ibid., p120.