A few more fish than you'd expect for seven bucks
Still Life: Still Lives Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 6 June - 27 July 1997
There's certainly a bit of interest in 'still life" at the moment. It was inevitable really one supposes: for the last few years it's been the 'body', in all its mediated, digitised, abjected, ironised valorised, etcetera forms, that has taken centre stage in exercising the imaginations of curators and theoreticians (The AGNSW's take on this launching soon), so there does seem to be a certain logical sense and progression in taking a look at another focus and genre that has enjoyed centrality in western arts practice. Logical certainly within the economics of re-articulation and reclamation that seem increasingly prevalent. Is this the new historicism? In MOMA New York - (then touring to the Hayward Gallery London) is the ambitious Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life in Sydney Morandi, and in Adelaide we have Still-life still lives.
In many ways it is a tougher job working with the concept of 'still-life' than with the 'body'. The body ironically is less exactly determined: there has never been a discipline or form referred to as 'body painting' outside of Nimbin style free festivals and anthropology and, in contemporary practice, we can find the body's traces lurking in everything from Jackson Pollock to Orlan and Stelarc. Still-life, is a more defined and specific area of representation, with its initial functions as both a celebration of the inanimate world: and as memento mori where the representations also serve to reinforce that 'all things must pass', and the later, less symbolic use of the tradition as a platform for formal exploration.
The genre would initially seem to deny jazzy extrapolation without becoming so attenuated and stretched as to almost disappear as a meaningful definition. A paradigmatic disappearance that echoes the Still-life's actual strange evaporation as a form in the work of twentieth century artists. An extraordinary outcome given its profound centrality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in the works of Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Gris, and other heroes of early Modernism. But then, the still life requires a frame as a determinative agent between itself and the 'outside' world, and once that barrier is made porous - as initiated in Picasso's introduction of the 'real' into its representation with his collaging of cane chair seats into representations of cane chairs, the 'still life' loses its formal substance back to 'life', an osmosis given a fast spin in the magimix by the concept of the 'ready-made'.
In Still-life still lives we have very much a show in two parts: in time, in hemispheres. and in dimensions The first section represents European and early Australian work and is largely two dimensional, the second half looks at contemporary Australian practice and is predominantly three dimensional. The awkward historical cross-over point of shift and change is not shown, or suggested, other than by the placing of two Margaret Preston paintings in the contemporary half - which, although rather wonderful, especially 'The tea urn' which manages to be restrained and lush and sexy at the same time, which is no mean feat - is still a slightly awkward bridging mechanism. Surely there must be a small cubist or post cubist collage borrowable somewhere in Australia, no matter how minor? Such an omission may be the result of a financial constraint but does help establish a slight air of 'working with what we've got' in the exhibition. In the flatter, non contemporary half there are, proportional to the number of exhibits, a few more representations of the human body than one would immediately expect in a Still-life exhibition: from Saint Cecilia, looking as if she's having problems remembering what should be on her shopping list in Francesco Fieravino's St Cecilia: an allegory of music, to the centre piece of the exhibition (and its raison d'etre?) the new acquisition The riches of the sea with Neptune and two sea nymphs, by Guiseppe Recco and Luca Giordano, which is chocker with both fish and figures. If ever there was a picture which shows the results of an early Adam-Smith division of labour it is this one. The fish element (Recco) is lush, shiny pulsating and nearly science fiction in its slimy physicality and excessiveness: whilst the figures (Giordano) are sketched and wooden with a rather charming putti floating like a tiny anti-aircraft blimp at the top left of the picture. A nice contrast to this work is found in Crispin van de Passe the Elder's Water. Here the fish have almost disappeared in comparison to the finny mountains in 'Neptune'. However there are two figures, one a strapping fisherman, net in hand and tackle box in his lap, sitting next to a woman and petting her cheek. The woman is perhaps the fish seller. On second glance we see that the woman's left hand is delving saucily into his tacklebox, bringing to mind, in admittedly a slightly dour Flemish way, the histories of the sea as the birth-medium of Venus, not to mention an entire history of the symbolisms of fish and sex in a way far beyond that of Neptune and his cohorts. But in the end, it's not the people but the fish that become a distraction. The piscine theme is up-frontly acknowledged in the exhibition, but that doesn't stop it muddying the waters. A 'populist' thematic link that never delivers more than that. There are more fish in Fish on a blue and white plate by WB Gould, painted in Tasmania in 1845, which is a lovely painting to the contemporary eye. However it does make horribly clear the sudden slamming of doors and limiting of choice that happened to you once translated to mid-nineteenth century Tasmania. By the technical standards of his day this man could not paint for toffee, (look at his 'Still life with Game' - some artists can make paint sing, few can make it groan), but even so, Tasmania gave him a guernsey.
An anachronistic delight of 'Fish on a plate' incidentally is the carefully rendered single fly suggesting the fake fly on the plaster foot in the Marcel Duchamp work 'Nature Morte '. The French phrase for 'still life'.
And it's the ghost of Marcel that floats quizzically over the second space. Although possibly not that of WB Gould. There are some, by any standards, frankly terrific works here (as indeed there are in the other room), particularly - for me- Rosalie Gascoigne, Rosslynd Piggott, Scott Redford and Shaun Kirby, and only a couple of duds.
There's also a whole load of objects, and fewer fish. But the relationship to the still -life, at least as defined within the exhibition, remains slightly fuzzy. Quite how does it fit together: do the expressions of one room relate or amplify those of another?
However, such concerns are somewhat pushed to one side as you're watching the holes in a cheese being carefully filled in with gorgonzola the texture of wall putty in Labour Bridging Nothing by Shaun Kirby. Why is this work so engaging so compulsive? I'm not sure, but it indubitably is, and the whole installation achieves a glorious autonomy, bouncing back between component elements of its-self (holes, doors, volumes filling absences) in a way that is fulfilling and almost allusive - although the allusions remain tantalisingly just on the tip of your tongue. Collection of Air 27.12.1992 -28.2.1993 by Rosslynd Piggott is far more overt in its references, namely extending a Duchamp work - into a catalogue of rooms, moments and (sealed) atmospheres. This act of homage producing an elegant work that brings into play ideas of memory, memorialisation, travel, and our understandings and organisations of experience. There is a calm certainty and absolute sureness of touch to be found in Rosalie Gascoigne's Set-Up where battered white enamel containers - jugs, bowls and billies - are placed on blocks on a grid of wood that carries the most perfect and weathered resonant pale blue striping: an arrangement that is stunning in its simplicity and its beauty. Scott Redfords Photo: Young man with Skull achieves a strong formal tension and placing with a witty and resonant meditation on mortality, sexual politics, and desire. These works do serve - as do others - to intelligently extend some of what may be considered the central themes of historical still-life practices resonantly into the contemporary arena.
It is really good to see the Art Gallery of South Australia producing new exhibitions and placing contemporary practices in readings and contexts that other venues in SA are simply not equipped to realise. And it is an engaging an exciting exhibition. But in the end it does get to feel a little unresolved as a totality and over-determined by the 'new acquisition'. It remains ultimately an 'occasional' show whilst both sections constantly promise and suggest far more. The fish theme, in what is essentially a smallish show (that could, given the area, have been a blockbuster) serves only to get in the way of, and to obscure, the themes of vanitas and desire and the pleasures of formal play that otherwise would have been central and clear concerns in Still-life still lives. Given a context involving a little less realpolitik - and a bit more resourcing and borrowing, after all this is a show you pay to see - you can't help but feel that the curators would have delivered a total winner here.