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paintings, ranging from the very small to the quite substantial, were painted in oil on panel, or later, on canvas. Early in that century they were aleady being categorized according to sub-genres: flower still life, banquets, pronk [sumptuous] still life, breakfasts, fish, fruit, game still lifes, as well as others, the vanitas, trompe l’oeil, market scenes for example that were situated at its periphery. Painters observed conventions laid down by studio, market, or patron as well as observing prevailing tendencies and fashions. But they rarely deviated from the convention for depicting familiar objects (high value or low, fabricated or natural) that are made to occupy a fictional space (a dark wall, a deep infinity, a staged set up) arranged on a surface (a table, shelf or recess) to give the impression of closeness to the viewer (even to piercing the picture plane in some instances). this ‘closeness’ was achieved by manipulation of light (invented or observed), the suggestion of depth (without recourse to mathematical perspective, but through shallowness and shading instead), and viewpoint (a horizon line being invented or observed, obscured or revealed, interrupted, blurred or shaded). Conventions of fine painting were determined by precedent, place of work, markets, cultural contexts and prevailing aesthetics. it is worth pointing out that many still lifes never existed as arrangements at all except in paint; they were invented conventions. But something more ambiguous does escape from fine painting’s margins: sketches of things discarded, where the artist is under no compunction to address the viewer or attribute meaning (Plate 1). today, still life is at play, its historical models made discrepant or distanced as in glenn Brown’s flower still lifes (2014), or effaced, as in tacita Dean’s video installation of morandi’s models (2009), or abjected as in g.L. Brierley’s alchemical object becomings. What still life has to say about things outside itself, and its own modes of creation, has become important to the practice. ged Quinn’s cakes on plates, for example are ambiguous and parodic: fruit cake as prison, sandwich as icecap, brioche as bunker. the historical convention must be present however, for without its lurking, no ambiguous practice can occur, and without a viewer’s awareness of an origin, no irony, parody or pastiche is possible. And ambiguity must occur. it is the state in which the representation of things is liquified, destabilized, put at risk, made open to play and imagination, a ‘meditation on being and becoming’.7 the term ‘still life’ dates to the mid seventeenth century, and is indicative of a cultural obsession with taxonomies, inventories, commerce and pragmatism at that time. ‘Still life’, writes Lowenthal ‘is a construct, which like all constructs, has a certain elasticity that allows for shifting emphases’.8 For the purpose of this exhibition and correspondence however the elastic has been tightened a little, to the painted depictions of objects in space in relation to a surface. Even within these three points of reference all manner of ambiguity occurs. my use of the term ‘still life’ acknowledges the historical in the contemporary, though it is common for artists and gallerists to avoid the category altogether. Janice mcNab puts it well: ‘they are still life, but the category no longer completely contains them.’9 AmBiguOuS PRACtiCES What is presented here is limited to what has come to light through correspondence between this researcher/curator and each of the ten exhibitors. A reading of this correspondence suggests that contemporary painting of still life is inherently ambiguous and contradictory, that it embraces and resists the genre, and is both observant and transgressive of its conventions. it is a feature of contemporary still life painting that it operates ambiguously at the boundaries and in the liminal spaces in-between its own genre and other practices. Ambiguity is resistant to meaning but not to imagining. Ambiguity is fluid, and suggestive in ways that play to, and lead to misunderstandings. Ambiguity engages through deception, inadequacy or lack, with the intention, or the inadvertent consequence, of causing an unsettling in the viewer. Ambiguity can take the viewer away from meaning to other forms of pleasurable irresolution and affect. Even ambiguity is ambiguous—its fluidity makes it contingent on cultural contexts, most notably conventions—where what is not ambiguous at one time can become so in another. it may be the artist’s intention to ambiguate, or to make themselves and their painting open to the stumbling across ambiguity. it can also be the case that an artist is concerned with disambiguating ambiguous objects through the painterly processes of describing and documenting as Jonny green has made clear.

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Still Life: Ambiguous Practices Exhibition Catalogue  

Catalogue by Frances Woodley

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