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Michael Shaughnessy: Tir Dhúchais (homeland)
November 13, 1998-January 31, 1999

Michael Shaughnessy
Tir Dhúchais (homeland) (detail), 1998
hay, wood, twine
192 inches diameter
Installed at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO
photo: Dan Wayne

Art 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 an awareness.

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.

Robert Raczka
Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director
Allegheny College, Meadville, PA