Wednesday, 15 September 1999

Mary Catherine Newcomb: A Surrealist in Kitchener

Ambivalence is a state of contradictory desire: to love and hate the same thing, same person, to feel a sense of belonging and at the same time alienation, to at once agree yet also to disagree. Ambivalence mires us in indecision, drains energy from our convictions and causes emotional stress. 

It is a two-headed deer joined at the mid section. One pair of forelegs is planted firmly on the ground as if attempting to lift itself on all fours. The other pair of legs is splayed in the air, falling, the head turned toward its own back as if to find the cause of its physical incapacitation. As one, this strange animal describes a three-dimensional arabesque. The twisting torso and necks define an elegant s-shape. The contrapuntal action and direction of the legs give it its expressive tension. It is a sculpture that simultaneously rises in space while it sinks back to earth. Janus faced, it looks forward and backward. One can even go as far as to see the first attempt of a new born fawn to stand, while its other half has been felled by a bullet. (Pushmi-Pulyu, 1996.)                

Over the years Mary Catherine Newcomb has used bodies both human and animal as symbols of consciousness and as vehicles to express universal desires and fears. The body, the artist insists, is located at the intellect's base, as the core and character beneath all knowledge. The body is a partner in a dialogue with the mind, providing a wealth of sensory information to the brain and providing abstract thought with an emotional and physical context.

Newcomb's use of animals has been a consistent refrain throughout her career and may be likened to the animals of aboriginal and classical myths. Rabbits, as carriers and symbols of occult knowledge, frequently occur in her papier mâché and cast concrete of the nineteen-eighties. Mice, snakes, a hyena, a fish, a sheep, and an alligator make appearances in Newcomb's narrative works as symbols of a knowledge that resides in the body.                            

With this two-headed creature, the artist has fashioned an image that has more in common with the plastic language of classical antiquity and surrealism than the ironic references of postmodern art making. A human figure joined at the waist to the body of a horse was the classical image of the satyr – a symbol of lust. The twisting serpentine form of the deer recalls the Ouroborous – the snake eating its tail – an ancient symbol of time. This pathetic struggle suggests the serpent-entangled figures of the second-century B.C. E. Laocoon, and the hunted deer as a metaphor of human fate can be traced to the myth of Diana and Acteon.               

Newcomb has given physical embodiment to the inner turmoil of ambivalence. Torn between our aspirations and our duties, our need for individuation and our group identity, we are, as the artist suggests, of two minds.

Gordon Hatt, 1995

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