Sarah Buchanan on Pat McGowan’s Work in Midpoint

Blog Post on Midpoint: by Sarah Buchanan, Stamp Gallery Staff, Class of 2013, Art History

Working with construction materials such as asphalt, rebar, and most notably orange traffic cones, Pat McGowan utilizes cheap, common, dirty materials that we see everyday. While we usually find these materials in construction sites, on the side of the road, or even in dumpsters, McGowan manipulates these objects to construct striking works of art.

I love the idea of using seemingly worthless items as a medium for art, leaving the value of the works not in the physicality of the piece, but in the aesthetics and concepts behind them. McGowan’s work immediately reminded me of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain”. A readymade urinal, the medium of the piece is seen as common, cheap, and dirty and is often looked over and rarely discussed. But using these common, loutish objects forces the viewer to discuss them and places them in a new light. Much like Duchamp, McGowan demonstrates bringing attention to the everyday, bourgeois materials unconventional in the creation of art. However, McGowan takes this a step further and reconstructs these pieces to create enjoyable sculptures; transforming what is typically seen by society as ugly and ordinary into something pleasurable and thoughtful.

My personal favorites in McGowan’s Midpoint exhibition are “Root Pull” and “Leader”. “Root Pull” is a work representing a tree trunk composed of pieces of traffic cones getting pulled out of the concrete ground, exposing its traffic cone and re-bar “roots”. “Leader” is a work entirely composed of traffic cones that appears to resemble a hanging tree branch. I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of man-made material and organic forms in these two sculptures. I love the irony in how we as a society extract natural materials from the environment to make synthetic objects, while McGowan plays on this commonality in using synthetic materials to create forms mimicking that in nature.

I had the privilege of conducting an interview with Pat McGowan about his Midpoint exhibition.

Interview with Pat McGowan:

  • Is there a specific concept or reaction you wish to evoke through your art?

McGowan explained his creation of both abstract and more representational art works, and how in both cases he likes to keep the meaning open ended in an attempt to allow the viewer to “get what they want out of it.” The resulting piece is what McGowan describes as “Dr. Seuss meets Mad Max, almost post-apocalyptic.” However, an overlying concept that he considers in the creation of his pieces is the idea of “deconstruction and reconstruction.” He explained how the materials he uses are “authoritative objects” in that they tell you where to go and where not to go; they define spaces and create boundaries. In using these materials, he is in a sense “taking away someone else’s authority and using it to make art.”

  • In reference to “Root Pull” and “Leader”, is there any significance in using man-made, industrial materials to create organic forms

McGowan discussed how he likes the idea of using industrial materials, and how raw and aggressive they are. Yet in many ways they are still organic in that they are integrated into our everyday landscape. He “manipulates hard edge materials in a loose manner” that in a way reflects their organic origins.

  • What are some elements that have influenced your work? Any specific art movements, personal experiences, significant people, etc?

McGowan expressed the importance of his experiences as a tree climber in his artwork, and how his artwork, in turn, influences his job. As a tree climber, McGowan is constantly around trees and construction materials, both elements of which are obvious in his artwork. He also explained the influence of natural and industrial disasters, growing up in a coalmining area in northeastern PA, as well as observances of his everyday environment in Baltimore, MD.

  • How has your work evolved over the past few years?

McGowan’s education in the art world was very traditionally based. He attended an art school where he focused primarily on pedestal-based work. As of late, his work has scaled up a lot, focusing on sculptural installations. McGowan described how his work is currently “straddling the divide between object and installation based work.” While his work is now more conceptually driven, he explained that the quality of workmanship he was raised with would forever be ingrained in his process.

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