Niall Donaghy: Iconology

Niall Donaghy Sculpture

Niall Donaghy, Superfortress

How many sculptors got their start in model-making? I’m talking kits, here, the making of model airplanes or cars or ships or, hell, even figures. Maybe they might’ve started off building those plastic kits that were once so ubiquitous (and which, as with so many of my boomer generation, I grew up with), and maybe, just maybe, they then moved off to something more a bit more sophisticated, maybe something that led them deeply and irrevocably into art.

If you built model airplanes of the plastic kit sort, it might’ve led you to building actual flying models. And, at one time (and to a degree even now), that would’ve meant working with wood. Balsawood, to be exact, that extremely lightweight material that, cut and shaped, made for the internal structure of things like wings and fuselages, and for things that might actually take flight.

That direction too might’ve led to art, and that brings me, a long way around, to the art of Niall Donaghy. He’s a sculptor based in Ontario ( Donaghy’s another graduate of the influential Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax (from whence so many of Canada’s best sculptors have come), and obtained his MFA from York University in Toronto (another sculpture hot-bed). Much of his aesthetic focus has come to rest on the place and meaning of cultural icons, and Donaghy does that, in part, via a form of model-making.

Niall Donaghy

Niall Donaghy, Spitfire (installation view 2)

I give you, by way of example, the Supermarine Spitfire, the single-seat fighter aircraft that has become synonymous with WWII, and especially with the Battle of Britain in which the German Luftwaffe attempted to bring England to its knees with a concerted aerial bombing campaign, and in which the Spitfire is remembered (not entirely accurately) for its heroic defense of King and Country. In short, it’s a major 20th century icon, hugely loaded with cultural significance. Donaghy’s sculptural Spitfire encompasses much of that. Structurally, it’s essentially a very large model aircraft, the wooden framework of wings and fuselage devoid of the original’s cloth skin. It’s naked. And, oh yeah, the airplane’s elegant wings are reconfigured, here arching forward. And, um, they curve down, as it happens, for Donaghy situates his artefact vertically, its nose resting on a pillar. Well, not its nose – its beak, actually, for the engine compartment and propeller of the iconic forerunner are, here, rendered as the head and beak of an eagle. Iconic, n’est pas?

Niall Donaghy Sculpture

Niall Donaghy, Superfortress (installation view)

Superfortress is more somewhat more straightforward, more subtle. It’s based on the B-29 bomber, the aircraft used to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII and incinerate them so as to force the Japanese to surrender. (The fact that the aircraft was also accidentally instrumental in the discovery of the jet stream flowing high in our atmosphere is largely forgotten in the light of its more horrendous role.) Again, Donaghy has created a large model aircraft, stripped of skin, weapons, engines, etc. – a minimalistic incarnation of the original. What is here aesthetically feeds off the iconic status of the original, and that is enough. Even the merest skeleton of the thing is enough to suggest, some sixty years after it wrought devastation, from whence it comes. Those who were incinerated by the actions of the original hadn’t even that left to give evidence of their having been. Some left just shadows imprinted on the ground. Superfortress belongs to that realm.

Niall Donaghy Sculpture

Niall Donaghy, Eagle (installation view)

Donaghy’s most contemporary aircraft-based sculpture is Eagle. It’s based on an aircraft currently in use by the US military: the F-15 Eagle, an interceptor jet capable of enormous speed and great firepower. Eagle, of course, has none of it. Again, it’s a skeleton, a wooden cadaver, of sorts, just the bare bones delineating the form and outline of an iconic symbol of what passes for American might. The original weapon of destruction, of course, isn’t constructed of wood as is Donaghy’s, and in any event his sculptural artefact doesn’t even attempt to duplicate the aerodynamic qualities of the symbol it aesthetically conveys; the twin-tails, for instance, resemble more shop sawhorses than anything remotely air-worthy.

And why should they? Donaghy brings an icon to earth (metaphorically and literally – in one gallery showing of the work, it sits outside, exposed to the elements, in the sculpture courtyard of a public gallery, occupying much of the space of a wooden deck, its fierce profile pointed at a couple of tables and chairs with protective umbrellas where people sit and chat and drink coffee. It’s been tamed, reduced, somewhat demeaned and brought to earth. A threat no more.

Niall Donaghy Sculpture

Niall Donaghy, Torqued DC-3.

And then there’s Torqued DC-3. It perhaps has most in common with Spitfire because here, Donaghy’s aesthetically messed with the fundamentals – in a rather big, overt way. This classic, iconic transport airplane that dates back to the 1930s (with both military and civilian applications, and which is still flying today) has been transformed into something akin to a proverbial trained seal. Torqued DC-3 rests on its back on the gallery floor. Like Donaghy’s other aircraft-based sculpture, it’s made of wood, a skinless fuselage and wings, the bare bones of the thing. But it appears like it is performing, for crying out loud; its tail is arched up and back, its nose the same, as if the two were stretching to meet one another. For all the world it looks like one of those performing Orcas at Marine World, beaching itself for the crowd’s astonishment and amusement, arching head and tail into the air on command…

Niall Donaghy Sculpture

Niall Donaghy, Spitfire (installation view)

Or maybe it’s a scenario that could, instead, be read as suggestive of plight, the airplane like a turtle upended and struggling to right itself. The artefact as manifestation of a state of crisis.

I may very well be giving the impression that Donaghy’s aesthetic is entirely bound up within an enquiry into the iconography of aviation, and by no means is that the case. One of his largest and most compelling works is Labyrinth Coaster, a floor-mounted piece comprising an enormous, incredibly intricate and complex model of a wooden roller coaster which aesthetically intersects with a manifestation of the mythological labyrinth of Minoan Crete in which the Minotaur was reputedly imprisoned. Too, his Labrys series of wall- and floor-mounted geometric sculpture also reaches back to the symbology of the ancient Minoans….

So, perhaps the legend of King Minos imprisoning Daedalus – he who designed the labyrinth for Minos – and his son Icarus – he who ended up flying too close to the sun when both escaped their captivity – found its way “further north,” as it were, became aesthetic fuel for Niall Donaghy’s fascination with the iconic designs of our recent past century of flight?

Maybe. Whatever the impetus, I’m good with the consequences.

By Gil McElroy

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