Boys and Girls
Threading Sun, 2004
What is Remembered, 2004
Roaming the Edge, 2004
Beast Heads, 2004
Hitched to the Swimming Lead, 2004
MAUREEN O'SHAUGHNESSY: WILD SWANS
Leda's famous coupling with Zeus in the form of a swan is one of the best-known and most suggestive of Greek myths. It is a story of inter-species rape that has attained a kind of perverse glamour, not simply because it represents a union between heaven and earth, but because we cannot relinquish the idea that the swan is the most graceful of birds. It seems more likely to be seducer than a rapist, and this is the way many Old Masters portrayed this theme, with Leda smiling dreamily at her sinuous, long-necked lover.
In one version of the myth Leda lays an egg, from which the legendary beauty, Helen of Troy, is hatched. Beauty then, is brought into the world through acts of seduction and violence, through an imposition of divine will on mortal flesh. There is an allegory about artistic creation to be extracted from this tale: the artist does not wrest fire from the Gods, in the manner of Prometheus, but is the unwilling recipient of the divine seed of creativity. From the violent struggles of the creative process, beauty is born. It may look perfect, effortless, but was anything beautiful ever made without pain?
In Maureen O'Shaughnessy¹s swan paintings, the struggle is apparent at first glance. She has worked and reworked these paintings, adding layers of feathery brushstrokes that impart a shimmer to the surface of each work. There is a physicality, even a violence in these pictures that is suggestive of Leda's attacker rather than the ballerinas of Swan Lake. O'Shaughnessy¹s swans are forces of nature, not objects of natural history. Although there is a strong abstract dimension to these canvases, the shape of the swan is always recognizable. We know it as a bird that mates for life, and a fierce protector of its children qualities that stay in the back of one's mind when looking at these paintings.
O'Shaughnessy has watched the swans drifting on the lakes near her home, but has transformed these elegant forms into raw, open-ended symbols. Her swans are bloody and broadly sexualized, they loom menacingly out of the mists like sea monsters. In paintings such as Swing and Swan Song, the birds thrust their necks sky-wards, in aggressive fashion. This impression is emphasized by the tempestuous manner in which O'Shaughnessy has applied the paint. These scenes are charged with an energy that seems to emanate from the swans¹ compact, streamlined silhouettes.
There can be few creatures that have been so universally mythologised and aestheticised - with the change of cygnet into adult swan being hailed as one of the most dramatic transformations in nature. In talking about these paintings, one could make too much of the subject at the expense of technique. For it is obvious that O'Shaughnessy is not obsessed with a particular motif - she has merely found the swan to be a catalyst for her existing preoccupations. Her swans are not to be taken so literally that they distract the viewer from the drama unfolding on the canvas, where one flurry of brushstrokes precipitates the next, as complement or reply. The swan is nature¹s changeling, but we are invited to look beyond that ambiguous shape and open our senses to the scene of transformation.
© John McDonald
John McDonald is art critic for the Australian Financial Review, and publisher/editor of East-West Arts.