Marian Maguire, Medium and Materiality Marian Maguire’s framed lithograph on paper, Virago (1990), can be found on the fifth floor of the James Hight Library by room 542D. Print dimensions are 720mm x 430mm. The work has been exhibited at the Canterbury Gallery in the 1991 exhibition “Life Cycle in Lithographs” and was purchased for the University of Canterbury by the now defunct Library Art Acquisitions Committee in 1995.
Lithography by its very method of production with the flat stone printing surface and a flat, pigment receiving, support material it would seem to conform o Clement Greenberg’s assertion of the importance material specificity for a “purity” in modern art. But as a lithograph is reproducible it problematizes its value as a commodity. Does it have that which Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, calls the “aura” and does it have the authority that is held by a unique and original work.
This debate over the nature of the original and the copy dates back to Plato, continues through today and will probably never be satisfactorily answered in the future. Benjamin was referring to the easy mechanical reproductions processes available to photographs but his comments could be pplied to any print method. Clement Greenberg, as an art critic, made an enormous effort to redefine the value of the work of art. “It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself. The idea that the meaning of an artwork should be found within it was also challenged.
German artist, Hans Haacke, rejected Greenberg’s formalist doctrine that has”.. us believe that art floats ten feet above the ground and has nothing to do with the historical situation out of which it grew. It is presumed to be an entity all to itself. The only acknowledged link with history is a stylistic one. Maguire steps back from being identified as part of a ‘feminist art’ but this work fits in with context of political art, exploring the social and political objective of empowering women and to dispense with the often, at the time, derogatory descriptions and depictions of a self- assured woman.
A modern definition of a virago is a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman, historically it described a woman who demonstrates exemplary and heroic qualities. With Maguire’s long term interest in the figurative image of the amazon it can be assumed that this is a depiction of the classical virago. She has said, in relation to another work, Boadicaea (1993), that shares many of the techniques and forms used by her in the depiction of the female form in Virago that… In non-Western culture there is a strong thread of myths relating to the creative/destructive goddess who can both give and take life. Boadicaea is an historical example of a woman prepared to defend the people she loves through a leadership and aggression more comfortably associated with the male of the species. ” Maguire does not associate herself with ‘Feminist Art’ as a form of expression but her work does reflect the feelings of ulnerability experienced by the artist in a society where women are valued by their looks and regarded as sex objects.
Her work from the late 1980s to 1990 regularly featured a totemic female form created with either an organic flow of lines and colours or a block-like rigidity that becomes an abstract form dealt with in terms of line, colour and pattern. She has described her lithographs, which usually have a gestation period of several months, as, “one-way journeys. Starting – knowing little; layering colours; looking for the subject and resolution”. In Virago the olours are predominantly red/brown and dark blue/green.
They are earthy colours that reinforce Maguire’s concept of the female as a wholly physical being that has been regarded by many cultures as both the giver and taker of life. In the “Life Cycle in Lithographs” exhibition there were the works Persephone and Hine Nui Te Po, one a Greek goddess of spring and rebirth and the other, the Maori goddess of Death. Included in Virago are patterns unlike the classical Greek border patterns and more reminiscent of “niho mano” a shark’s tooth design of Polynesian on the ground, body and legs.
There is a three-way conversation between Classical women, Feminism of the time, a strong powerful woman, and a body outline similar to that of indigenous Maori carved body forms. Continuing on from ideas raised by Clement Greenberg, who saw the move toward the picture plane as the logical outcome of modernist self- investigation: “The history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium; which resistance consists chiefly in the flat picture plane’s denial of efforts to ‘hole through’ it for realistic perspectival space..
Marian Maguire’s voluptuous female forms the image does ‘hole through’ and is anything but flat. There are three distinct planes in the work; the ground, the head and torso, and then the hips and legs. Here the hips and legs thrust out into space, creating a solid three dimensionality of the abstracted forms, defying Greenberg’s assertion of the qualities required by the flat surface of the support material the image is printed on. “All my images have been of single, female figures.
This shape becomes the visual starting point and links my ideas closely to the life ycle as women’s bodies have historically symbolised birth, procreation and death. ” The placement of the hips with the legs pointing out at the knees and back in at the toes form a heart shape, a feature repeated in many of Maguire’s females of this time. The heart shape brings the usual associations of this symbolism of female physicality and energy with associations of feminine spiritualty and mythology.
The space in the middle of the heart is dark and cavernous, a place of mystery which “makes this person, on her Amazonian legs, a statue of foetal housing”. Being produced in 1990, this would make Virago one f the last of her figurative works before she “shifted from the female body to the mental landscapes individuals inhabit” with gates and bridges as her subject matter, but it does pre-shadow her later work which combines her continued interest in classical imagery by her use of two dimensional Greek black figure vase painting and New Zealand indigenous and colonial lithographed art.
Her latest exhibition, FIREPLACES: Odysseus, Penelope & Te Koha (2017), moves even further away from material specificity and gallery location. Designed for a domestic dwelling; the narrative tales are painted onto the mantelpiece nd surrounds of recreated Victorian fireplaces. Maguire says the use of the fireplace is an invocation of the, “light and warmth of the family hearth… Which) provided a focus for the remembering of histories and telling of myths”. Te Koha, as the name implies, is a gift to the Ngaruahinerangi Iwi and will be displayed at their marae in Taranaki. Marian Maguire’s work is a clear indication the concepts of medium and materiality put forward by Greenberg and Benjamin are not consistent with her work produced in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.