McKeown’s work arises from a fascination with the romantic idea of the world Soul, the idea of life immanent in matter and ‘will’ to formation in nature – an idea championed by Goethe who had influence on prominent scientists and mathematicians in the 20th century. Goethe’s approach pre-empts in a way ideas intrinsic to current theories concerning chaos. Chaos theory being the study of dynamical systems; the phase transitions and changes these models undergo over time – in other words systems in flux. For McKeown, Goethe is the bridge between the modern science of chaos and the myth.
The Realm of the Mothers in Goethe’s Faustus could be interpreted as being the realm of the dark ‘materia prima’ from which all things are born – the womb of creation.
This is also outlined in greater detail throughout James Gleick’s book Chaos Theory (1987), a text that has had increasing impact on McKeown’s most current body of work. James Gleick describes the essence of chaos: a delicate balance between forces of stability and forces of instability.
Central to the construction of the paintings is the use of the process of ‘decalcomania’ to create so-called dendritic fractal patterns; a technique primarily associated with the surrealist Max Ernst whereby two paint surfaces are pressed together. By enacting the process of decalcomania on the portraits there is a subversion of their Apollonian order – creating an opening or a site for the Dionysian nature to emerge – the portraits can be seen as fierce, ‘carnivalesque’ totems of the natural order – disrupting the idea of political, social, intellectual power. The dendritic fractal pattern is the geometry of fluid nature (Chaos) – the portraits are overruled by the nature of the material and forces which are beyond our control. These are portraits transgressing themselves, they become elemental goddesses.
Michelle McKeown is also influenced by De Kooning’s paintings of women of the 1940’s – where the membrane between the women and the world breaks down – they are as much in the landscape as the landscape is in them.
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