Catalogue essay by Phe Luxford
I found her on a night of fire and noise
Wild bells rang in a wild sky
I knew from that moment on
I’d love her ‘til the day I died
Nick Cave, Do You Love Me?
Both revered and adored, the symbol of the Bride is one elevated above the everyday, and brings with it not just an optimistic promise of devotion, but also the reminder of fleeting youth and the complex and sometimes uncertain expectations bound within the marital contract.
The title of Meg Cowell’s latest exhibition, Night Bloom, hints at this paradox, with its suggestion of cool night air and a pull toward moonlight. Within the glossy surfaces of her large format photography, crisply rendered couture wedding gowns float unshackled within infinite blackness. Assigned with cliched titles playfully evocative of cheap romance novels, Cowell’s images tease out the contradictions buried within fairy-tale notions of love.
While her work has always dealt with moments of transition, there is something particularly dark hiding among the folds of Cowell’s latest project. In these new works a real sense of spiritual energy is at play, expressed through her use of cloudy, opalescent waters suggestive of things in a state of vaporous disintegration, and via her still life vanitas’ of faded flowers and human skulls. She says of her aims for this series “I am wanting to capture the hopeful, beautiful, vulnerable flower blooming in harsh uncertain times and terrain. They are almost hysterically romantic”. 1
Both beautiful and unsettling, Cowell’s aesthetic channels a filmic sensibility, recalling characters like Margaret Mitchell’s embattled Scarlett O’Hara or Daphne du Maurier’s confused and lonely Mrs. De Winter. In perfect Hitchcockian style one starts to wonder if these seemingly perfect images of womanly transformation might in fact be more akin to a dark tragedy. Not quite the grim figure that is Dickens’ Ms Havisham, all faded and torn, or the terrifying spectre of the Wilis2 that inhabit Giselle’s haunting ballet, Cowell has none the less choreographed a ghostly performance that pays homage to the Victorian Gothic fascination with the afterlife, the supernatural, and the plight of the vulnerable heroine.3
Cowell’s Night Bloom is telling a story of melancholic romance, in all its dark, succulent allure. It’s a story about youth and beauty, of losing oneself and of falling away from the corporeal. Unlike the majestic hues of her earlier images, the decision to restrict her palette to muted tones and opaque waters suggests ideas of purity, fragility, and the ethereal, and recalls the finely detailed allegorical paintings of the Northern Renaissance. “I am influenced by those Renaissance-era pictures wherein figures are borne up to heaven by clouds. These puffs of celestial vapour communicate a remarkable sense of the supernatural and a tangible expression of divinity”4.
Where her drapery and cloudy fluids merge, airy space is rendered visible, indicating a slippage between the worlds of the real and the spectral. Dresses defy gravity and fall away into immateriality, as do the objects within her broody still lives. Using artificial flowers, skulls adorned with floral arrangements coalesce with vaporous clouds, suggesting a spirit disembarking or some poisonous gas rising. Reminiscent of the allegorical paintings of the 16th century Dutch School, these images aim to demonstrate the fleeting nature of life, and the inescapable nearness of death.
Whether Cowell is intending to portray the restless soul of a jilted bride or the delighted, passionate dance of a youthful newlywed, Night Bloom taps into something pensive and complex about the nature of romantic love. Within the fairy-tale beauty of these images is hidden a message of fragility, loss and the bittersweet rituals of life’s passage.
Phe Luxford 2018
- Email conversation with the artist, Feb 2018
- The Wilis appear in the 1842 ballet Giselle. They are the ghostly spirits of maidens spurned by their lovers, doomed to haunt the forests seeking revenge on passing male travellers, enchanting them into a dance till death.
- The feminine as represented within Gothic literature offers up two stereotypes – the malevolent or the innocent. ‘Women are presented as objects of desire, maternal figures, supernatural beings and are often defined by their biological roles. It is the transition between these typecasts that is particularly interesting.’ Clamp, Rachel, The Significance of Female Identity Within Gothic Literature, https://owlcation.com/humanities/femaleidentity
- Meg Cowell, Artist Statement 2018