Everyday heroes

From the IAR Archive

Michael Quane’s sculpture celebrates the ordinary citizen rather than leading political figures, writes Peter Murray in his appraisal of the Cork-born artist

Since graduating from the Crawford College of Art in 1986, the sculptor Michael Quane has lived and worked for the most part in Co Cork. He works almost exclusively with Kilkenny limestone, which he carves with extraordinary skill, having developed a personal and unique style in which animal and human forms are often juxtaposed or intertwined.

Quane’s work is figurative, and lies somewhere between the symbolic and metaphoric. Many of his sculptures are akin to memorials, but he tends towards the depiction of anonymous citizens rather than leading political figures from history. In Quane’s own description of his 1995 sculpture at Mallow, Horses and Riders, he makes the point that the figures are depicted unclothed in order to prevent assumptions being made about their stations in life (Fig 5). The message that ‘all men are created equal’ underpins the artist’s vision. Many of Quane’s sculptures are small or medium scale, but he has also carried out several important public art commissions, including Fallen Horse and Rider (Fig 4), sited at Midleton in 1994, Horses and Riders positioned at the Mallow roundabout the following year and Figure Talking to a Quadruped (Fig 2), sited in the grounds of University College Cork (UCC).

History and a Dustsheet, set on the perimeter of the Ballincollig roundabout in 1996, blends a sense of the mythic with the historic, with its figure pulling a dustsheet off a large millwheel, the entire carved from a single block of Kilkenny limestone. Outside Co Cork, works by Quane can be found at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Castleblaney College in Co Monaghan and at Mayorstone Garda Station in Limerick, where his Persona (Fig 3) again celebrates the ordinary citizen of the State. The sculpture, depicting a street performer, is based on the concept of the world as a stage. Quane elaborates on the idea: ‘It was here in the everyday, that the dramas within the tragedies and the comedies unfolded through and under the law, where all who act wear faces, costumes and wigs dependent upon the positions they occupy within the drama. A drama which is essentially a long play between power and powerlessness’. Quane’s Islandman, located at the Blasket Island Centre, at Dunquin, speaks of the people who once lived on the windswept Blasket Islands, off the coast of Co Kerry. Quane’s more recent exhibitions include ‘Out of Pareidolia’, where sculptures and drawings by the artist were shown together, at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. The word pareidolia refers to a human tendency to discern recognizable forms in, for example, clouds, water or marbled stone, and provides a clue to the artist’s method of working, where forms move from liminal to clear figuration and then appear to merge back into the stone. Commissioned under a percent-for-art scheme, Quane’s Fallen Horse and Rider is located at the Beechwood housing estate in the town of Midleton, in east Cork (Fig 4). Carved from a single block of Kilkenny limestone, the effectiveness of this sculpture lies in the tension between the two main elements, the horse and rider, which although separate beings are depicted inextricably linked together, even as they have fallen. The artist describes this sculpture as an exercise in pathos and adds, ‘it is anti-heroic’, which it certainly is, when compared with the standardized equestrian sculptures to be found in many cities, almost all of which trace their roots back to Classical art. Fallen Horse and Rider was commissioned by Midleton Urban District Council in 1994, and in that same year University College Cork commissioned Quane to carve another equestrian sculpture, to be located on the campus, and the result was Figure Talking to a Quadruped (Fig 2). The artist emphasizes that these works should be seen along with the 1995 Mallow commission, Horses and Riders (Fig 5) as a single body of work, rather than three separate commissions. ‘Each one is concerned with connectedness and isolation. Each sculpture is a development and enlargement on the sculpture before it in terms of scale, and the use of the material and the use of space in dealing with the elements involved. For example, the evolution of the use of space between the elements from the work in Midleton where the contact between the figure and the animal is along the full length of the figure, to the taut space at UCC that is open to interruption, to the carved space between the figures at Mallow that can never be arbitrarily interrupted. They are also a development of my approach to the central concern within the three works: evolutionary, historical, and social connectedness co-existing with individual isolation… In each of the three cases above the site influenced the final work, however the site was chosen in the first place because it suited the idea.’

Of the three, the Mallow sculpture is certainly the best-known. Located at the centre of the roundabout at Annabella, on the southern side of Mallow town, it was commissioned by Cork County Council and sited in December 1995. When the new dual carriageway south of Mallow was approaching completion in 1993, Cork County Council invited artists to submit proposals for sculptures which would be commissioned under the per cent for art scheme. This was the first time the Council had used the scheme for commissioning art for roads and Quane was one of the three artists selected. Full of tension and dynamic movement, the limestone sculpture at Mallow is one of Quane’s finest works. By using the elements of horses and riders circling in a tight knot, the artist sought to convey, in his own words, ‘a sense of the connectedness of individuals through their culture, history, evolution, dependency and need amid their own personal isolation and indivisibility.’ The technical quality evident in Quane’s sculptures is greatly enhanced by his sensitivity to both personal and collective identity. In this work, as in his other public sculptures, he has sought to convey the ability of people to communicate with one another, to tell their stories and histories – an important part of the cultural life of Co Cork. The figures are not intended to represent specific people but a general spirit in society, and for the artist it is important that they be shown as equals.

Quane writes of this work: ‘The stone is Kilkenny limestone. It is quarried from beds of varying thickness laid down approximately 350 million years ago. This activity was taking place when the piece of land we now call Ireland was in a tropical sea crossing the equator on its way to its present temperate location. The dimensions of the block to be quarried is only restricted in one direction and that is by the thickness of the bed. After that the size is restricted by the weight that the crane can remove from the quarry floor, which is 22 tonnes, the same weight restriction for your standard lorry on the road. However, the block for Horses and Riders was 25 tonnes at the bottom of the quarry. It was suggested to me that I get a 100 tonne crane to lift it from the quarry and a low loader to transport it. I thought I was in trouble. We removed two tonnes from the block and so as rudimentary calculation now told us we had a block of limestone that was 23 tonnes, we were ready to ask that the crane take it to the top and so it did slowly.’ Although the weight of the block for Horses and Riders was 23 tonnes, the finished work weighs 11 tonnes: ‘All of the work on each of the sculptures was done at the studio before installation. Installation of the work then, was simply lowering the sculpture into place, onto an in-situ cast concrete foundation. The orientation of course was determined by the surroundings and by the nature and emphasis of the sculpture itself. I feel the sculpture at Mallow is successful. In its composition it involves the space and site into which it is put. The viewer is pulled around the sculpture in the direction of the traffic by the carved subjects. I feel that the scale of the work, the object itself relative to the junction, works well. I like the glimpses one is forced to take on passing it. From all approaches one can see it from a distance – it quickly gets closer not unlike the rate of approach that a zoom lens will give. Then, when you’re right upon it, it swings to your right and simultaneously starts to recede until it eventually disappears behind you. If you think about this cinematic approach for a minute you will see why such a site induces notable similiarities. The approach of every individual to the site is pre-determined like the view through a camera is determined by the rails on which it runs. The speed of the approach is choreographed with the change in direction at the roundabout. The faster one’s approach the more pronounced becomes the breaking (the slowing down of the zoom action) the more sudden the change in direction when the sculpture swings to your right (at least it should do, otherwise you are in trouble). The slower the rate of approach the more gradual the transition will be. Many people say it’s a pity you can’t see it, you’re through the roundabout and passed it and it’s gone…’.

The figures are intended not to represent specific people but a general spirit in society, and for the artist it is important that they be shown as equals

Located at the eastern approach to Ballincollig, this work was commissioned by Cork County Council under the percent-for-art scheme and sited in June 1996. Set beside Poulavone roundabout at the eastern approach to Ballincollig, History and a Dustsheet differs from Quane’s horse and rider sculptures in that it was a response to a specific brief and refers directly to the history of the area in which it is located. A simple but eloquent work, History and a Dustsheet is composed of a single block of limestone weighing four tonnes. (The sculptor started out with a stone weighing over eleven tonnes). The block was carved skilfully so as to impart to the stone a sense of fluid movement. Figurative in style, it depicts a workman pulling a dustsheet off a large millstone.

The millstone refers to the industrial history of Ballincollig, where, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a large workforce was employed at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in making explosives for the British army and navy. In more recent years, the complex has been restored by Cork County Council and converted into a park and heritage centre. Manufacturing gunpowder was highly dangerous, as the slightest spark could cause an explosion. Metal was forbidden in the mills; Wooden pegs were used instead of nails. Even the hinges and locks on the doors were made of leather and wood. Because iron-rimmed cartwheels on cobblestones could cause sparks, canals were used to transport the explosives around the large industrial complex, which stretched for over a mile along the banks of the River Lee. Making gunpowder required the grinding together of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Again, metal could not be used and so stone millstones were employed. A number of these large grinding stones still lie scattered about the park, providing an eloquent reminder of its past.

However, History and a Dustsheet refers to more than the history of the mills and those who worked in them. Carving a dust sheet in stone is an allusion to the transmutation of materials over time but there is also an autobiographical allusion, in that a dust sheet would protect sculptures in the artist’s studio. Other allusions might include the unveiling ceremony which generally accompanies the placing of sculptures in public spaces. In spite of these many-layered references, the artist’s claims for the work are characteristically modest: ‘The work at Ballincollig was sited in much the same position and orientation as a sign would be; as a beacon of important information or as a marker to where you are, or to where you’re about to be shortly.’ Quane is also enigmatic about its meaning: ‘This sculpture, like all of what I’ve undertaken in the past, is intended to encourage its audience to wonder, and attempt for themselves to fill in the gaps with what answers are satisfactory for them. It is not intended at all to be didactic.’

A sculptor who has established both a national and international reputation, Quane has literally carved out for himself a unique place in contemporary Irish art. His work is at once rich with historical allusion and an original vision. He was elected a member of Aosdána in 1998 and a member of the RHA in 2004.

Peter Murray is Director of the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 29, No 1, 2012