Archive Feature: Disquiet Beauty, by Anna Morell

Zara Carpenter's Persephone

‘Persephone’ by Zara Carpenter

The ‘Disquiet Beauty’ Exhibition was held at Rochester Gallery & Craft Case and the Rochester Guildhall Museum from 24 October 2014 to 3 January 2015. It featured the work of Zara Carpenter, Tessa Farmer, Kerry Howley and Kate MccGwire. This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of WOW Magazine.

By Anna Morell

I first met Zara Carpenter coming out of a Rochester art shop. She carried herself like Holly Golightly channelling Louise Brooks and I tumbled out a compliment about her hair. The next time I saw her it was from behind, reading a novel, poised, the back of her shirt cut out to reveal a small, circular tattoo. A wildness, an elegance, an intelligence and an absurdness, just beautifully being. With an exquisite eye for putting herself together.

She is known primarily for her millinery. But she has put on a different hat for ‘Disquiet Beauty’: that of co- curator of a heck of a coup for the Rochester Art Gallery, showing her own work and that of Kerry Howley in ensemble with two of her heroines, Kate MccGwire and Tessa Farmer.

Kate MccGwire Scylla x
Kate MccGwire’s ‘Scylla’

Kate MccGwire’s work is featherweight. Literally. Sculptural cascades of keratin, whirling, gloaming and brooding out and over the spaces they inhabit. There is an elegiac quality to her work. A breathtaking precision and delicacy. A profound, disquieting, contemplative beauty. As is fitting of birds, her work cannot be contained to the one space, and Zara has co-curated the exhibition across two. A short walk up the High Street, the Victorian Room of the Guildhall Museum becomes a companion space, comprising work by MccGwire alongside some rarely-seen ornithological taxidermy from the Guildhall’s archives. The specimens have been picked for their compositional beauty, and their locality (nearly all were found locally; few are found here now.)

Tessa Farmer’s work is the diametric opposite in scale. Minuscule, blinkmissable worlds at the corner of your eye. Fairies fighting insects. Here, specifically, desiccated wasps. Pulling hair, using it as weapon, a tourniquet, a twist, an adaptation, mischievous innocence long lost, fighting for dear life, or death. A waver, a blur of intent, despite the sharp, clever, execution of these tiny, terrible worlds.

Disquiet Beauty Discharge Feather detail
Feather Detail of ‘Scylla’ Photograph by JP Bland

Echoing the arcs and circles of MccGwire’s work, Kerry Howley works human hair into jewellery reminiscent of lace collars. They are, in effect, modern interpretations and successors of Victorian mourning jewellery (selections of which can also be seen, from the Guildhall’s collections). Mussed haloes, supernatural shrieks of hair, chopped from their existence as signifiers of feminine beauty and sexuality. These pieces are feasibly, still, feminine adornment; braided lines to be explored, as both attractors and repellents, hewn from a material we see as both living and dead.

Over it all watches a silent, hairless head, filled and covered with legion mouths: Zara Carpenter’s ‘Persephone’. Countless bees, spiders, flies, dragonflies and snails cover an abundance of silk flowers. Snakeskin and bird wings crackle and smooth over any last space. It is, literally, a heady, measured, cacophony of colour, life, and death without decay. An endless cusp of summer, defiant, in spite of the deadness of its component parts. It is a riot, and a raging, playful, but absolutely meant, and it will not allow the eye to rest on its deceptive stillness. It has the poise, the precision, the wildness and the elegance ever present in Zara herself.

‘Persephone’ was conceived three years ago, when Zara was told she had a bleed on her brain – a discovery that shocked her into confronting her own mortality. At the same time, her partner was exploring the Dutch Masters and reworking floral Vanitas in photography. The two things merged conceptually, and, with her flair for couture-influenced millinery at play on the practical level, ‘Persephone’ was begun. The gestation was a long one, as she waited and gathered the tiny cadavers necessary for the piece.

Zara describes herself as the amateur in this show. Kate MccGwire and Tessa Farmer are internationally acclaimed. Both have places in Saatchi’s collections. But there is a continuity and depth that link these pieces perfectly. Zara’s childhood as a pigeon fancier leads to MccGwire’s skyfalls of pigeon feathers; leads to Kerry Howley’s swoops of hair; leads to Zara’s insect-swarmed head; leads to Tessa Farmer’s wasps, which lead finally to Cormac McManigan’s beetles, the living jewels of the natural world, reworked as jewellery in fine metals. These are deeply personal, principally and wonderfully feminine explorations of life, death, myth and humanity. They hold an inherent violence beneath their carefully crafted forms, and a tension, ready, as per their physical essence, primarily avian and entomological, to take flight to places both wild and tamed, within this realm, and without.

Regard these creatures. These memento mori. And memento vivere.