The allure of Meg Cowell’s work is just as deep and complex as the garments and swell of water that surrounds them within her photographs. Sumptuous, opulent fabrics appear at once to breathe within their own undulations, the inky blackness that envelops them seemingly endless. Inspired by period costume and the hidden meanings often associated with women, status, life experiences and how they shroud themselves, Cowell entrances us with her interpretations.
The artist has always been fascinated with seducing the viewer, through methods of her own construction yet by also embracing chance. While studying her practice she was fortunate enough to have been inspired by talented artists, one of these being the photographer Anne MacDonald, whom Cowell nods to within this latest exhibition. MacDonald is one of those artists described as part of a sub-category of contemporary Australian art, dubbed Tasmanian Gothic. Artists exploring dark truths and folklore surrounding the island– climate shifts, isolation, indigenous slaughter and convict history – create works that are infused with an inclination for the sinister. MacDonald’s work, which looks at showcasing familiar objects lurking in darkness, inspired Cowell. The piece ‘Petals,’ where a soft, blue tinted rose-like petal folds and disappears almost before the viewers eyes is not too dissimilar in form to Cowell’s blue, full dresses. The source of the works is the same, where MacDonald draws often from nature, so does Cowell. Yet where the first artist depicts those inspirations directly, Cowell fuses her gowns with the essence of these ephemeral muses. The artist says, ‘I’ve been looking at elements common to those things considered beautiful in nature; proportion, symmetry clarity, harmony and colour.’ Whilst also looking at Dutch still life painting which captures so brilliantly these exact expressions, Cowell looked to butterflies - their fragility, the aesthetic principals, their deep symbolic resonances – and structured her garments to resemble their forms. The fullness of her dresses appear to take flight, swelling towards the surface and their colours vivid, opalescent, unfading.
This exhibition for Cowell though is not just a continuation of her exploring these visual pursuits. Where her works have often seemed inhabited, it was a natural progression for the artist to try and document human form within her flowing textiles. Imperative was still the desire to have a strong sense of fragility, and so these new photographs tempt our senses with soft pastel pop tints - colours associated with under garments and lace, and the milkshake hues of youth.
Sally Mann and Bill Henson are perhaps the most famous of photographers to explore these themes – Henson sometimes controversially highlighting a haunting uniqueness that he draws out of his young subjects, and Mann capturing so breathtakingly the freckles and wide eyes of her own children at play.
Cowell too handpicked a model that would perfectly match the beauty that she was trying to grasp. As well as highlighting the often-brutal fashion industry that uses young girls and boys to create a world of fantasy and illusion, Cowell photographed a subject who was bordering the precious moment between childhood and young adulthood. Lithe wrists sit across soft silk, and fingers creep up to touch collarbones – these works are beautiful, disarming and arresting.
There are some photographs where clearly a mature woman is used, and these works too allow for a fascinating reading. Traditional clothing clings across full breasts, partially covered by worked hands and some poses are almost recognisable – the Virgin Mary in her lapis shroud, and Ophelia clutching at flowers at she sinks in to the water beneath her. This move in Cowell’s practice has marked an exciting and haunting shift as she delves into deeper water.
Essay by Melanie Caple BArts(FA), MArts