Long fantastical beards punctuate Laith McGregor's blue-biro-on-paper renderings of men with metronomic regularity. Set against starkly empty backdrops, these self-portraits and portraits of friends and family members are usually densely allegorically combines his photographic realism with fragments of history, fiction, popular culture and other mythologies.
The Melbourne-based artist is drawn to the trope of the beard for several reasons. One relates to the beard's mystical significance, an appreciation that extends from the artist's visits to India and his studies of the holy men there. More broadly, however, McGregor's practice is interested in the physiological marking of time that facial hair has on a man's face; the way it inscribes both a slowly evolving and biologically specific temporality onto a person's appearance. On top of the beard's already-existing connotations of authority, wisdom, age and status, McGregor's practice adds a layer of ritual: whether that be related to the actual repetition of executing individual hairs in pen (a process that is meditative in itself), or his unending exploration of the cultural signification of beards to male identity.
However, the popularity of McGregor's biro drawings, which have appeared in important survey exhibitions such as 'Freehand: Recent Australian Drawing' (2010–11), belies the scope and complexity of his broader practice. This extends to include video works, colourful sculptural busts and oil paintings. In video works such as Maturing, 2008, the artist captures himself on film drawing a pen beard onto his own face. What begins as a quirky moustache and goatee is layered over by repeated and increasingly more cartoonish manifestations of facial hair until the artist's entire face is covered in pen and resembles a tribal tattoo. In this way, and in a Cindy Sherman-like gender-shifting gesture, Maturing analyses the construction of masculine identity both from the inside out and the outside in.
McGregor's sculptural busts of oil paint on modelling clay, sometimes presented under bell jars as if specimens or collectable objects, appear to be haunted, spectral shadows of the subjects they portray: the hollow or closed eyes lend these sculptures the elegiac air of Middle Ages death masks. McGregor's almost folkloric oil paintings, on the other hand, are rich in poetic symbolism without necessarily relinquishing the key to their decoding. Here, bearded men sail through empty lakes by moonlight or sit cross-legged smoking cigarettes, while crystalline abstracted shapes traverse the surface of the canvas and begin to spar with the curvilinear natural forms of McGregor's figures. These paintings are more difficult to analyse within the semiotic grain of masculinity. Instead, by blending aspects of photorealism with memory, literature, art history, popular culture and the artist's imagination, they engage more closely with the visual language of magical realism. In keeping with the genre, McGregor has noted the importance of encouraging unexpected evocations, placing an emphasis on open signifiers in the reading of his work.
While it is tempting to read McGregor's work purely in relation to the social construction of masculinity via the fashion of facial hair, his practice is multifaceted and fits equally into a broader topography of new wave mystical and allegorical art. There are aesthetic links to the beaded tapestries and totemic sculptures of Alasdair McLuckie, for instance, and the muted sculptural figures of Francis Upritchard. This retro-revival aesthetic was set out by curator Sebastian Moody in his recent University of Queensland Art Museum exhibition 'New Psychedelia' in which McGregor was included, and the association helps posit the artist's work within the long lineage of drawing, meditative ritual and alternative spirituality that was particularly resonant in the 1960s.