Through the looking-glass with Alice
Similarly, Maher has used hair as a motif. In stories and artworks, hair can signify the female body that patriarchal hierarchical systems seek to police and control. Maher has said she was making drawings of long, braided hair, in the mid-1990s, while living in France, when someone said she was illustrating the story of Mélisande, the princess whose hair grows fantastically, until she is symbolically and violently “tamed” by a prince. She hadn’t heard the story, but acknowledged its relevance.
“The stories are out there,” she told Carol Eckman, of New York’s Nolan/Eckman Gallery, in 2000, “and you just refer to them without knowing.”
She inhabits her work in other ways. “I never draw from life,” she says, meaning she would never pose a model in front of her and make a representational image. Rather, she visualises the bodily attitude she has in mind and assumes that position herself. Literally.
To make an image of a woman lying on the ground, for example: “I lay on the ground, for a long time. I think if you feel what it’s like you can draw that feeling. Because for me it’s not about capturing a likeness – or capturing anything, in fact – it’s about extracting something, excavating something.”
With the Portraits series, Maher began working with actor and writer Olwen Fouéré as the model, and then realised she was in some way copping out by not putting herself in front of the camera. “They’re based on very formal Renaissance portraits of women, often where the nobleman gets a record of his bride, and I thought, no, make the artist the subject – and of course it’s the artist as woman.”
The portraits, like her more recent, drawn animation films, evoke the spirit of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “In which people undergo all sorts of transformations, into plants and even stones.”
Change and the possibility of change underlie a great of what Maher does. “So much of what I make seems to be fragile and perishable,” she says. Obviously so in the case of her bee or berry dresses, her nettle coat and Cell, the bristling globe of brambles originally made for Kilmainham Gaol. Less obviously so in the case of chalk drawings on velvet and huge charcoal drawings on paper. These could be chemically fixed and sealed, but she resists doing that. “It would be as if they’re lost behind a glaze of varnish, which makes them something else. Part of the point of them is their fragility, that they are susceptible to change.”