The genre of still life, with its connotations of trussed up game birds or flower arrangements, would seem to be a perfectly apposite theme for an exhibition set in a castle amid genteelly landscaped grounds. The title might mislead however, as this exhibition, curated by former Turner Prize judge Polly Staple, is a resolutely contemporary meditation on the status of the image as object, with an emphasis on the type of cerebral work that focuses on ideas of originality, appropriation and repetition. In various ways the six British and American artists exhibited undermine the privileged status of the natural object as the starting point for the artwork, and instead treat the found image as art’s raw material. If the subtext of still life as a genre has frequently been to provoke an awareness of the inevitability of our mortality, the work on show here also demonstrates a concern, albeit an oblique one, with ideas of absence, finitude and decay.
The first work one encounters is Mark Leckey’s hypnotic looped video Made in ‘Eaven (2004); a drifting, gradual close up of Jeff Koons’ chrome inflatable Rabbit (1986). Leckey’s piece places Rabbit in an empty, white painted room and closes in on the dizzying reflections of the architecture, alternately concave and convex. But the blank face of the sculpture reflects without reflecting: no human presence returns our gaze – the blank chrome surface endlessly reflects the empty and anonymous architecture. The vacant room, void even of the filmmaker, gradually reveals the animation’s unnervingly airless, virtual character.
The seed of Sherrie Levine’s work is more prosaic than Leckey’s mesmerized homage; in this case an unremarkable commercially produced image of an anonymous detail of landscape. Levine, of the Pictures Generation emerging in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, could be considered as the foremother of the exhibited artists, garnering attention for her daring piracy of the photographs of other artists’ work – a strategy that presented a radical attack on the concept of artistic originality. Her contribution to this show, Aspens in Flagstaff (2009), literalizes the exhibition’s conceit of the image as found and founding object, framing twenty-four identical postcards and arranging them in a grid. The mediated image, at a remove from the artist as well as the geographical context from which it originates has an almost anaesthetic quality. Its abstract, pixilated formality when viewed from a distance resolves into the oddly soothing repetition of mass production, a muted, processed echo of the gallery’s garden setting.
Anne Collier’s work similarly questions the possibility of originality in image making. In her mise-en-abyme images, disembodied hands hold open the frontispiece of unidentified books to reveal double spread full bleed color images, one a seascape, Open Book # 3 (Island Wilderness) (2010), the other a vast night sky, Open Book # 4 (Pink Floyd) (2010). The literal re-presentation of such clichéd and romantic commercially produced images forces a critical detachment that drains the images of their potential emotional impact. Aesthetically, the effect is at once both vertiginous and jarring, as the viewer is drawn into a vast expansive landscape only to have the reverie cut short by the reflected sheen of light from the book’s spine, hammering home both their prosaic object-hood and the ultimately ersatz nature of the commodified image.
Similar strategies of distanciation and repetition are employed by artists Seth Price and Gillian Carnegie, albeit in different ways. In the work of Price, long, vertical tablets stamped with the year of their making reproduce the ghostly imprint of a crumpled bomber jacket in vacuum formed plastic panels, which emerge into the gallery space in shallow relief. Each of the three panels, all entitled Vintage Bomber and all comprising the same motif, explicitly recall the sort of laminating or molded plastic packaging used to keep an object or collectible in pristine condition. This is quite at odds then with the crumpled and haphazardly placed jacket that has been the recipient of Price’s treatment. The range of finishes; varying from matt white to a nacreous plastic sheen, serve to undercut the serial production and replication of arrangement. Similarly, the pristine, machine-formed quality is undermined by the rough and contingent finish of each panel: one rumpled at the corner, one untrimmed, one neatly squared off. The aleatory execution hints at human agency and its inevitable flaws and variations, while the crumpled form preserves the trace of an object or person no longer present, like pop-cultural echoes of the mausoleum.
In contrast, the technically exquisite canvases of Gillian Carnegie are ostensibly more conventional. Carnegie’s work attends with almost compulsive focus to the traditional still life theme of the vase of flowers, her subject here a decidedly shrivelled and bedraggled bunch lodged in a truncated plastic bottle. Carnegie has made some twenty studies of the arrangement, four of which are exhibited. Ranging from the subtle opalescent grey green palette of Fleur de Huile (2001) to the crepuscular, low contrast grey-scale of P104 (2008), Carnegie’s canvases suggest that she submits photographs of her still life to various digital treatments before painting them. In a subtle rhyming with Price’s plastic panels, Carnegie’s paintings also grow into three dimensions; two canvases have been partially built up into a thick impasto so that the brittle and desiccated arrangement seems to grow or lean out into the space of the gallery, making the dead materiality of the flowers manifest in our space.
Decay and transience are implicit also in Richard Wright’s site specific work set deep in the castle grounds in the fantastically named Monkey House. Wright, who won the Turner Prize in 2009 for his temporary wall drawings, makes a considered and thoughtful intervention in this dramatic architectural setting. The Monkey House is a turret-like folly entered through a gothic arched doorway, mirrored by a deeply recessed niche, and further articulated by another wider doorway and a slender arrow slit. The walls have been smoothly plastered and white painted to within a foot of the poured concrete ceiling, where the even precision of the finish gives way to ancient, pitted stone. Wright has colonized the white walls with a continuous pattern of black isosceles triangles, convex on both diagonal planes, as if to mirror the elegant lozenges of the leaded glass panels above the doorway. On closer inspection, each element has been patiently hand painted, revealing small imperfections and individualities. The damp conditions are already causing the mural to flake and peel, it is ultimately fated to be painted over at the show’s end, only to exist as a photographic trace or memory.
Wright’s mural and its melancholy fate form a fitting end to a subtle and elegantly devised show that wears its conceptual nature lightly. Despite the rigorous re-negotiations of the nature and status of the image, and the sometimes-claustrophobic intensity of each artist’s exhaustive scrutiny of their subject matter, there is much here that is playful and visually compelling. The sombre curatorial concerns of transience and absence are counterbalanced by each works’ dramatization of the evident pleasures and absorptions of perception; ultimately the show’s pensive meditation on decay and finitude is leavened by its celebration of the joys of looking.
Still Life was on view at Lismore Castle Arts Gallery, 9 April – 30 September 2011.