Rob Gutteridge
"A Few Moments of Gravity"
Greenhill Galleries, Adelaide
23 April -11 May 1995

Reviewed by John Neylon

What in the final decade of the twentieth century can still-life mean or say? At the beginning of the century it was hijacked by the new art order, reality or rather art on the slab dissected by Cubist analysis. But Braque or Picasso's amortised and reshuffled pack of guitars, food and newspapers were not the first assemblages of objects to self-consciously interrogate or project cultural values. The genre's Western ancestry incorporates the illustration of inanimate objects in Greek and Roman paintings and mosaics and the illusionist naturalism of Quattrocento Italian art. The tradition maintained momentum through the "oeuvre" of a diversity of artists including Corot, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne and Van Gogh, to carry still life as a pictorial and conceptual option into the twentieth century.

But the cultivation of still life as a self-contained genre is attributable primarily to Dutch artists of the 17th century. More than conspicuous displays of wealth, the cataracts of fruit, flowers, game and exquisite silver and glassware reflected the ethos of an emergent nation-state with its pride in economic prosperity confounded by Protestant anxiety about earthly pleasures. The fully ripened fruits and sprawling game were depicted on the brink of spoil and decay. The dead cockerels, ripped peaches, split melons and cracked nuts counselled sexual virtue or prudence. Bruising and the activity of insects spelt the onset of decay and death.

Is it true that successive generations of Western artists have exercised the still life-as-metaphor option? In Australian art it is relatively easy to trace an enduring affiliation which encompasses the colour and structural experiments of the modernists and a cavalcade of artists from Margaret Olley, Justin O'Brien, Tim Storrier to Brian Dunlop who for various reasons have incorporated stil life components into interior subjects. But the frameworks and imagery of Dale Hickey supply the most useful context for Gutteridge's project.

Hickey, particularly in his "Cup" series and landscapes of the early 1970s undertook a program of inquiry about the nature of painting. He was attempting to break down an object into as much description as possible and baring in the process the structures and systems of representation. The banality of the tea cups (Duchampian ready-mades) was a corrective to subject associations. The influences on Hickey at this time were many; among them the Art & Language and minimalist movements as well as John Cage's and Wittgenstein's aesthetic of the ordinary. Equally relevant to Gutteridge's recent work is Hickey's body of artist's studio imagery work of the early 1980s, almost an act of defiance within the painting-is-dead ethos of the time.

The Hickey context is useful because Gutteridge, in Adelaide at least, works in relative isolation, a fact emphasised by some reading his Greenhill works as recycled Cubism. But it wasn't as simple as that. "Feast at Seguret, Seguret, Provence - Autumn and Seguret, Provence - Spring" the three works which held this large and diverse exhibition together were extensions from an earlier body of work exhibited at the Adelaide Central Gallery in 1992. In that exhibition one work in particular, "Tabernacle", revealed much about the artist's priorities. It showed a studio interior filled with the usual clutter. But the boards, jars and such like were arranged and articulated with care. The bottle of wine and bread on the table left no doubt about the ritual nature of the arrangement; the studio table as altar and the act of painting an act of creation.

"Feast at Seguret" incorporates elements of this earlier work but the composition is less formal and devoted more to emphasising the exchanges of different colours and forms. The other two works, also inspired by a working visit to Provence in late 1992, introduce more personal elements. Back in Adelaide and wanting to retain and share the memory of architecture and landscapes, Gutteridge looked for ways to crystallise experiences. Building constructions for his three year old son suggested some options.

Both paintings can be read as playful assemblages, castles in the air or villages on a hill. But the grammar of description creates tensions between illusion and abstraction.
This focus on creating and responding to pictorial representation was maintained to varying degrees in the smaller still lifes and figure paintings also in the exhibition. Some works including "Breakfast and Brancusi" and "Desert Classics" displayed a Morandi-like affection for the humblest of objects. Another group including "Fallen Angel" (a cloth draped across an easel) and "Reflected Fruit" gave the impression of the eye 'falling on' an object and responding with surprise at the wonder of it all.

The artist has remarked that, apart from a sense of respect for the process and circumstances of painting he continues to be fascinated by the artificial nature of seeing and representing and the endlessly unravelling crisis of representation which results. In response to the century-old question; 'Why does it look different the next day?', Rob Gutteridge continues to exercise his extensive painting talents.