Artlink – Screen Deep, Vol. 27 No. 3, 2007
20 May – 11 November 2007
Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Snap Freeze is a sprawling survey exhibition of contemporary artists working with the genre of still life. The 36 artists were selected by the curator, Jenna Blyth, according to a handful of sub-categories of still life including vanitas, death, food, flowers and table arrangements. However, the historicising classification comes across as forced: many of the works do not sit neatly in such categories, and collectively the works are too disparate to read in such cohesive groupings. Instead, they operate detachedly from each other, competing for individual attention in the expansive architectural interior of Tarrawarra.
The exhibition is dominated by the medium of painting but the works are mixed and on the whole, uninspired. Tim Maguire’s ballooning, epic flower studies are technically dextrous but have an inescapable venality as does Elisabeth Kruger’s Bunch – a mimetically painted cluster of grapes on the vine. These images concern themselves with spectacularity at the expense of a meaningful relationship with the subject.
Similarly, Lewis Miller’s paintings of cuts of meat – lamb chops and shanks arranged on plates and kitchen tiles – relish in their own bravura brushwork. Deft impasto marks shrewdly connote the sense of raw meat, but the fleshy matter serves mainly to herald the artist’s muscular technique.
More rewarding is eX de Medici’s vegetal whimsy which recalls Arcimboldo in its irrepressible sense of organic growth: the skull in Mother Skull sprouts poppies and is formed from thousands of tiny, gyrating petals. The symbolism of life in death, and death in life is conveyed in a manner full of foreboding, absurdity and dark humour.
The most intriguing work in Snap Freeze is Tony Clark’s (Hyacinth and) Crimson Chat; a painting that seems to meditate on its own representational limitations as much as depict its chosen objects. Scatological smears of paint simultaneously suggest and mask recognisable forms: the Crimson Chat of the title is obscured by ambiguous marks, and the whole image almost collapses into the play of paint.
Against such robustness, other paintings seem slight. Noel McKenna’s 48 Tallies (Birthday Still Life) – an image of a table laden with 48 longnecks of beer – has a delicacy and faint humour but in contrast to others’ livelier techniques, comes off as wispy. Flimsier still are Sadie Chandler’s circular paintings depicting miniaturised girlish accoutrements – a handbag, a hairpin, a pink shoe.
Overall, many of the paintings iterate familiar ground, presenting routine refrains from the conventions of still life. The paintings of Kristin Headlam and Anne Clarke, depicting persimmons, beer bottles and ashtrays, are prosaic representations of these modest objects.
It’s curious that the strongest works in the exhibition are ceramics: by Michael Doolan, Honor Freeman and Gwyn Hanssen Piggot. Is this because the material register of these works so closely correlates to the objecthood of still life? Gwyn Hanssen Piggot’s Trail with Grey Bowls is emblematic of her aesthetically refined vision of reductive forms. In compositions that have defined her work, porcelain bottles, bowls and dishes are placed in Morandi-like tableaux, with the subtle asymmetries of each piece orchestrated into seamless arrangements. It’s beautiful if somewhat predictable work.
More interesting are Honor Freeman and Michael Doolan, who infuse their encounter with domestic objects with inventiveness and wit. Michael Doolan’s simplified cartoonish forms take as their ostensible subject the garden pot plant. The ceramic materiality of Flower and Pot Plant however is hidden by a chrome-like platinum lustre which makes the works seem like strange mechanical objects; industrial tap heads, for example. The plumpness of the forms also makes the objects resemble inflatable toys. The tensions between a hypothetical functionality and metallic decorativeness, buoyancy and inertness, are compelling.
Freeman’s assortment of faux-Tupperware containers of all shapes and sizes are slip cast in porcelain, and their matte opaque surfaces perfectly evoke the matte plastic pastel-coloured look of Tupperware. In a playful and elaborate composition, jars are stacked, bowls inverted, and a lid nestles inside its lunchbox. The forms are exquisitely rendered down to the impress trademark, and the work reclaims and restyles the humble functionality of kitchen storage with affection and savvy.
Jacky Redgate is also drawn to the realm of plastic storage, but unlike Freeman, her contoured laminated photographs of container tubs and eskies are devoid of personal connection. The boxy plastic objects are flattened through the photographic lens into funky horizontal and vertical lines, reinscribing the work into the vernacular of geometric abstraction.
Which brings us to the central problem with Snap Freeze: the lack of correspondence between the works. Although they variously, and to different degrees, perform the genre of still life, the works jostle uncomfortably with one another. Rather than expanding on a set of propositions, cumulatively the 36 artists play out a process of invalidation, and ultimately detract from each other’s presence. A tighter selection of artists and a stronger curatorial thrust would have averted this, and may have filtered the genre through a perspective that attributed it with fresh and unexpected meanings. The exhibition curator makes small steps to this end by thematising light as a sub-category of still life, but is only able to identify four artists exploring this thematic, two of whom (Jacky Redgate and Tim Maguire) are tenuous proponents.
In his brilliant essays on still life, Norman Bryson sees much of the meaning of individual works of still life coming from ‘the inflections they are able to introduce into the field of previous work.’1 For too many of the works in Snap Freeze, this is precisely what is missing. To keep to the lexicon of table culture, Snap Freeze is a smorgasbord – but it’s a visual array whose plenitude congests, rather than stimulates or satisfies.
1 Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Norman Bryson, Reaktion Books, London, 1990, p. 11
eX de Medici, Mother Skull, 2006, watercolour and metallic pigment on paper, 109 x 114cm