inevitably functions as representation, which can exist in many forms
and can operate on many levels, from narrative painting that condenses
aspects of experience into single images to the emotional expressiveness
of gestural abstraction, from the ornately decorative that is associated
with tradition and wealth to the emptied-out minimalism that represents
a rejection of the past. Though a work of art usually offers visual or
other aesthetic pleasures, the greater significance of art stems from
its ability to represent, and thereby to affect how we think about the
world and how we feel about our place in it. But because contemporary
art includes so many different approaches, reflecting a great diversity
of perspectives, it is often difficult to grasp the means by which art
represents even though one might sense much of the artist's intentions.
This, I expect, describes many viewers' experience of Michael Shaughnessy's
sculptures which employ the common material of hay shaped into familiar
forms. Shaughnessy's skillful use of those elements within the context
of an art gallery carries with it implications about nature and culture
and about the artist's identity within the framework of affiliations with
ethnic, religious, and other groups. The means by which these associations
are evoked merits close consideration.
The most fundamental choices made when setting out to create a work of
art convey ideas about how the artist regards both the artistic process
and the world. Traditional forms such as landscape paintings, ceramic
vessels, or photographic portraits, while they can represent many ideas
at once, also represent the continuity of tradition. They provide a link
to a widely understood, shared cultural past, which offers reassurance
that contemporary life is not so wholly new that we cannot make sense
of it based on our experience. On the other hand, much contemporary art
emphasizes newness over tradition, generating images and forms with which
one must grapple to understand what is being represented, and thereby
capturing our ongoing struggle with a rapidly shifting world. In addition,
there are artists whose work combines elements of newness, representing
change, with elements evocative of the past, representing continuity.
In this approach to art making, objects or images that are drawn from
the past are incorporated while being re-cast or re-presented in ways
that lead to interpretation based on the way we live now and what we know
of an often contradictory history. Characteristically, Christian Boltanski
utilizes photographs to invoke in the present our memory of the Holocaust
and its victims while highlighting the fragility and essentialness of
remembering. Ann Hamilton arranges accumulations that wed metaphors of
mystery to the now-faded promise of progress that accompanied the material
wealth of modernity. And Kiki Smith casts or sculpts birds, body parts,
and other immediately recognizable objects, displaying them in unconventional
arrangements to both represent and question traditional conceptions of
order and knowledge. Among art that seeks to reconcile pastness and newness,
we can consider Michael Shaughnessy's hay sculptures, a series of works
that he has been creating for over fifteen years.
Whether the forms are relatively simple, as in the large sphere of Hay
Round (1992), or considerably more complex, as in the knotted tangle
of Divney's Meander (1997), Michael Shaughnessy's sculptures
evoke an agrarian society's pragmatic use of forms which may be stylized
in order to represent something of religious, spiritual, or cultural significance.
The sphere of Hay Round is relatively precise—for an 8-foot-diameter
sphere with a thick nap of heavily textured hay covering the surface—and
bears resemblance to a haystack with its large mass, fecund scent, straw
texture, and subtle coloration. But this mass of hay has been formed by
Shaughnessy and represents the exercise of human intervention exceeding
practical necessity, which is an intervention shared by premodern and
modern societies. As we have come to recognize that so-called "primitive"
societies are far more complicated than was previously recognized—with
complex traditions, beliefs, and codes of behavior—we have come
to recognize that those societies have in common with modern societies
the widespread practice of rituals and signifying forms that represent
connections, fears, aspirations, and other manifestations of human consciousness.
Shaughnessy's sculptures provide a link between the symbolic forms of
premodern cultures and our own widespread practices of symbolism and representation.
Shaughnessy's sculptures bring the agrarian, which is a hybrid of the
natural and the cultural, into the more refined space of an art gallery.
Considered on a general level, Shaughnessy's hay sculptures can be seen
to represent a nondestructive tilling of nature. This bespeaks an acceptance
of the fact that humankind will make use of nature for its benefit, but
can do so while minimizing the damage to the environment. This message
is implicit in Shaughnessy's sculptures rather than being asserted as
his reason for making them. Shaughnessy's involvement with his chosen
materials and procedures appears to be an outgrowth of his respect for
the way in which agrarian societies valued nature as a foundation of their
existence and treated it with the care and respect that result from such
On a level of more personal connection, Shaughnessy's work is infused
with elements that are drawn from and make reference to his Irish and
Roman Catholic heritage as well as to an agricultural ancestry, acknowledging
that his identity was formed within shared experiences and belief systems.
By drawing from his heritage, Shaughnessy points to the fact that individual
histories, in conjunction with group affiliations and other connections,
underlie our evolving culture. An awareness of those sources can help
to counter the fragmentation and alienation that characterize many people's
experience in the present, yielding a usable past and contributing to
a meaningful perspective on where we came from and where we are. Surprisingly,
Shaughnessy's sculptures are able to evoke such ideas and interpretive
possibilities while possessing a physically and materially emphatic presence.
Shaughnessy's works are not portable
in the way that most modern sculpture is, but instead are created on-site
or, at the least, reconstructed while being adapted to the specific qualities
of a space, incorporating sensitivity to lighting, architectural materials,
scale, and sometimes history. The sculptures usually employ a plywood
armature that gives the work its form, though the underlying structure
is obscured by the covering of hay which may be woven or bound. The labor-intensive
quality of Shaughnessy's work necessitates that the on-site creation of
the large sculptures be done with the aid of assistants, in a communal
process. Though there are elements of site—specificity to Shaughnessy's
sculptures—he attempts to achieve a harmony between the work and
the site-the sculptures are nonetheless meant to maintain a sense of autonomy.
Michael Shaughnessy's sculptures initially accentuate their materials
and form, then readily proceed to elicit a host of iconographic references—including
associations to premodern cultures, agrarian societies, and Catholicism—that
lead us to consider ancestry as an aspect of Shaughnessy's identity and,
in turn, of our own as well. This is an elusive aspect of representation,
through which we find ourselves contemplating something not explicitly
present in the work of art. Through Shaughnessy's art, we can recognize
that the transience of the moment is linked to larger cycles, including
cultivation and harvest, which emphasizes the fleeting quality of the
present while tying it to traditions of the past.
Michael Shaughnessy is associate professor of sculpture at the University
of Southern Maine, Gorham, ME.
Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director
Allegheny College, Meadville, PA