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Natura Morta




Natura Morta Recent perceptions of an old aged genre

The genre of still life, or Natura Morta, has for centuries been instilled with a lingering aura of melancholia: a bitter-sweet condition that burnishes the human spirit. The earliest examples can be detected far back in antiquity. Images of food are amongst the earliest works of art. In the caves at Lascaux, in the South of France, one can witness an ancient mastery on display in the charcoal drawings of herds of bison; the same can be said of the great Aboriginal rock galleries at Kakadu, that depict emu, wallaby and barramundi. Ancient Egyptians travelled to the afterlife accompanied by victuals for the journey illustrated on tomb walls. Greeks depicted the harvesting of olives on amphora; remnant frescoes on villa walls at Pompeii celebrated life with images of the bacchanal. According to the art historian Norbert Schneider, the genre itself was not formerly identified until the mid-seventeenth century, when scholars first came upon the term still life while examining Dutch inventories from that time. 1 The still life genre today provides an extensive range of subject matter that can deal with life and death, vanitas, domesticity, everyday utensils along with food and flora and the notion of time passing.

1. Norbett Schneider, Still Life, p7 Taschen 2003


Lascaux Cave Art France, upper paleolithic era

Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill , 1648 Oil on wood, 24 x 36 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The joy experienced in the midst of abundance is constantly overshadowed by the encroaching reality of inevitable death and decay. Pleasure and existential angst constantly penetrate our perception of the everyday world of objects and experiences. For Natura Morta, a group of artists were invited to contribute works that ultimately reveal a deep felt sense of their own mortality. They include: Genevieve Carroll, Guy Maestri, Janet Haslett, Euan Macleod, Luke Sciberras, Joanna Logue, Rosemary Valadon, Bill Moseley and Juz Kitson. This has been a revelatory process devoid of the morbid, yet fully appreciative of life’s follies and our ultimate demise. In effect, Natura Morta is a disparate meditation on what could best be described as the human condition. Looking at these depictions of inanimate objects, the question we should ask is what ideas are being conceived in the creation of these images: What can we detect that sheds fresh light on our own times? To mark the 100th anniversary of the Anzacs ill-fated landing at Gallipoli, a group of artists were invited to visit the site earlier this year. Among them was Guy Maestri. 2 Surveying the battle-scarred peninsula, Maestri was struck by the waste and futility of the campaign. The works on display in Natura Morta reveal Maestri’s skill at selecting the elements that best express the artist’s emotional response to what can only be described as a national calamity. In effect, the series can be seen as a momento mori – a keenly-felt distillation of imagined horror.

Also among the artists invited to Gallipoli were Euan Macleod and Luke Sciberras. The response to the experience will be exhibited at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney and the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra, in early 2015.



After - Life , 2014

Oil on canvas, 61 x 51cm. Collection of the artist

Guy Maestri



After - Life #3, 2014 Oil on canvas 56 x 66cm. Collection of the artist


As Maestri pointed out: ‘How do you process the idea or the understanding (but not your own memory) of a war? How do you make images of it? I don’t know. The images I made are about loss, which was the overriding emotion I experienced when I went to Gallipoli. Loss diffused through generations of time. I found bullets in Gallipoli along with human bones – and the coastline was so like our own. I’ve used these elements to make quiet paintings about loss. Though there is one violent painting in this suite. Man devouring nature and ultimately himself.’ 3 In After-Life # 2, the pathos of the Gallipoli campaign is amplified by the bunch of wattle (our national emblem), seen suspended over a scattering of shell casings and bullets retrieved by the artist while wandering across the battlefield at Lone Pine. Again, in After-Life, 2014, the artist’s anguish is evident in the stark image of a human skull accompanied by the corpse of a crimson rosella: the result of a recent road kill. Futile destruction is all around us. It should not need the memory of war to jolt our sensibilities.



Guy Maestri, correspondence with the author 29 September 2014

After - life, 2014 Oil on canvas, 76 x 66 cm. Collection of the artist


When Luke Sciberras allows himself a break from the rigours of landscape painting, there remains a good deal of inspiration close at hand. The nearer the artist is to his kitchen at Hill End, the closer he is to the motifs that have long exerted a deep-seated meaning in his life. It is here one senses that the artist has married his two great loves, the landscape and the kitchen, into some of his most rewarding works. Besides mastering the perilous demands that underpin culinary prowess, there is more significantly an overwhelming desire on the part of the artist to share with others the pleasures of his gastronomic endeavors. There have been many well lubricated feasts at Hill End that attest to the artist as the most convivial of hosts. The well-loved objects and victuals that shape the contours of Sciberras’ personality come into being in his paintings. In Restaurant Kitchen, Baccala & Groper, 2012, the artist has conceived an imaginative study that incorporates certain culinary elements he shares with his friend the renowned restaurateur, Lucio Galletto – they both share a fondness for Baccala, the famous Mediterranean dish of salted cod. Observing Cock Up, 2012, one is presented with the stark image of a recently dispatched cockerel set against a dark earthy ground lit by a faint glimpse of landscape beyond. In a quiet salute to Chardin, the artist reflects on the cockerel’s brief existence while contemplating the next move in the preparation of a promising meal. As the artist recently stated: ‘these paintings are part of a series that came straight from the heart while confronting the imminent death of a close friend. They are painterly reflections on the fine line, the thin thin wall between life and death.’ 4



Luke Sciberras, correspondence with the author, 8 October 2014.

Restaurant Kitchen, Baccal and Groper, 2012 Oil on board 120 x 120cm. Collection of Lucio Galletto OAM

Luke Sciberras 10


Cock Up, 2012 Oil on board, 120 x 120cm. Collection of the artist


Steaming Dinner, 2005 Oil on canvas 60 x 82cm. Collection of the artist

Food prepared without love or imagination can be a grim experience. In Euan Macleod’s suite of paintings, he continues on what he describes as ‘a mental excavation of childhood memories to do with the role of food/eating and especially, the kitchen.’ 5 In effect, what we are witnessing is the artist’s meditation on the darker aspects behind what most of us regard as a pleasurable, life-affirming ritual. In Steaming Dinner, 2005, a somewhat resolute figure is about to embark on what appears to be a grossly unpleasant experience. Macleod has equated his early memories of eating with primitive bodily functions – a joyless only joy is in the manipulation of paint, certainly not the memory of food. This condition is further explored in Still Life, 2014. A rudimentary kitchen and table setting have been engulfed, in what appears to be an avalanche of dirt and debris. Paradoxically, the only useful utensil on the table in this overwhelming scenario is a shovel. It is no wonder that Macleod has described these paintings as psychological excavations, plumbing the shadow-side of the celebration of life.



Euan Macleod, correspondence with the author, 29 September 2014.

Excavation, 2005 Oil on canvas 38 x 51cm. Collection of the artist

Euan Macleod 14


Still life, 2014 Oil on canvas 101 x 120 cm.

Collection of the artist


Janet Haslett’s recent suite of paintings is, once again, a bravura exercise in retrieval and invention. The artist’s recent Butcher Shop imagery is drawn from the Holtermann Collection of photographs that document life on the Hill End goldfields in the early 1870s. The photographer was in fact Beaufoy Merlin assisted by Charles Bayliss.

Butcher Boys (Lysaughts), 2014 Oil on canvas 41 x 41cm.

Trawling through the archive, Haslett has isolated images of five butcher shops at Hill End: G.H. Bryants, 2014; Butcher Boys (Lysaughts), 2014; Butchers & Buildings, 2014; Butcher (formerly Krone’s Cottage), 2014; G.H. Bryants (Clarke St), 2014. In all the works the butcher is seen as the proud providore alongside his valuable carcasses. In most cases he is joined by family and friends, some dressed especially for the occasion. There are dogs as well, seen mindful of their place, while relishing the abundance above.


Butchers & buildings, 2014 Oil on canvas 49 x 56cm. Collection of the artist

Janet Haslett 18


G.H. Bryants(Clarke St.), 2014 Oil on canvas 46 x 85cm. Collection of the artist


The artist’s decision to render the meat in distinct russet tones animates the pictorial space as well as creating a curious contrast with the grey-hued townsfolk. The composition emphasizes the fact that meat, particularly beef, was the most sort after food on the goldfields. Haslett’s decision to crop the original photographic images has given rise to lively compositions re-invigorated by her use of colour. The suite of Butcher Shop paintings appear as a confronting, unmistakably violent display, far removed from how most people in the west encounter meat products. Today, viewed in cling-wrap trays, the cuts of meat have been sealed off from the reality of the butcher’s trade. Haslett’s spectral images of the butcher shops at Hill End invoke a robust people in touch with the life and death reality of their times.


Butcher,( formerly Krones cottage ), 2014 Oil on canvas 46 x 85cm. Collection of the artist

G.H. Bryants, 2014 Oil on canvas 46 x 85cm. Collection of the artist


Juz Kitson is a ceramic artist who also shares a strong affinity with the Hill End region. Following a recent residency at the Haefliger Cottage, the artist has found inspiration in the various objects retrieved from surrounding gullies and paddocks. In Changing Skin (no3), 2013, the bleached bones gathered by the artist have been combined with porcelain, paraffin wax, horse hair, along with deer and cow hide to create a strange hybrid of materials forming an equally unsettling installation. The choice of materials is a key element of the installation, particularly the porcelain components that can only be realized at Jingdezhen, an ancient porcelain city in China, where she has been working since 2011, assisting Chinese contemporary installation artist, Lin Tianmiao. As Kitson explains: ‘I have spent the last three years working there, refining skills, learning from local master artisans, developing new techniques and experimenting with new surface treatments and porcelain bodies through processes inaccessible to me here in Australia.’ 6 In one of her processes, Kitson pours plaster into condoms to create ‘udder-like’ breast forms – they could also be read as testicles, another life-giving form – fragile, yet disturbing. As Kitson points out, her work is driven by the underlying themes of Eros and Thanatos (life instinct and death instinct) fragility and decay. ‘I take dead lifeless objects – inanimate material – and I give them a spark of life. Although I deal with death, more importantly I deal with life.’ 7 Kitson’s potent installation, Changing Skin, (no3), challenges the viewer to look more closely into the elusive life-force that animates us all.

6 7


Still Life, article by Jane Llewellyn, The Adelaide Review, July 2014 ibid

Changing skin, ( No. 3 ), 2013 Jingdezen porcelain terracotta clay, paraffin wax, deer & cow hide, horse hair, flocking, bone, resin, 125 x 35 x 20cm. Courtesy of the artist & GAGPROJECTS Greenaway Art Gallery S.A. Private collection

Juz Kitson


The collaboration between photographer Bill Moseley and landscape painter Joanna Logue brings together their particular artistic approaches on a technical and conceptual level. The medium of tintype, like Logue’s landscape painting, depicts its subjects in an abstract and otherworldly manner. Arbitrary marks and strange tonal shifts emerge during processing lending additional mystery to the finished image. At a conceptual level, Logue brought her recurring theme of a landscape visualized through windows into the frame of Moseley’s layered and intriguing still life compositions, together evoking a sublime and timeless quality. 8 In Yorke’s Dream 2014, Moseley and Logue depict a vivid arrangement of Chinese porcelain objects up close in contrast to the mysterious landscape viewed through the pitted glazing of windows from a previous century. The works invoke a poetic stillness, a sense of time passing. In ‘Vol de Nuit, 2014, a kookaburra’s striking profile and its ruffled plumage create an unsettling image: is this creature dead or alive? Is it attempting to fly off or is it another victim of road-kill? If the latter is the case, the artists have arranged the corpse as a kind of momento mori acknowledging the bird’s brief existence and sudden demise.



Logue & Moseley, correspondence with the author 10 October 2014

Vol de Nuit, 2014 Tintype on Aluminium, 80 x 90 cm. Collection of the artists

Bill Moseley & Joanna Logue 26


Yorke’s Dream, 2014 Tintype on Aluminium, 80 x 150 cm. Collection of the artists


On first encountering Genevieve Carroll’s painting, Force of Circumstance, 2014, one is taken by the artist’s ardent association with her garden. We are witness to a beautiful, purposeful anarchy that had taken shape in paint with disparate influences ranging from contemporary figurative painter Cecily Brown and the vivid still life works of Georges Braque to the tumulturous arrangements of Chiam Soutine. Apart from Genevieve’s skilful handling of oil pigment, what elevates this highly-expressive work is her ability to impart aspects of personal grief within the framework of a greater universal loss. As Genevieve puts it: ‘I wanted to combine the trauma of the planet with personal trauma – interior and exterior worlds colliding, or jostling together – trying to make sense of it all.’ 9 It’s also important to grasp the air of theatricality that distinguishes Carroll’s imagery. At first glance, looking at Force of Circumstance, the viewer is intrigued by elements of daily life – one can detect recognisable objects; a jug, a cup, a tea pot, flowers from the garden, the curved back of a chair. In what was a daring move, all these beautifully formed elements appear to be swept up in a tsunami of paint – crimson, fuchsia, russets jostling with greens, yellows and blues creating a riveting sense of personal urgency that is the artist’s means of addressing life’s contradictions: wonder and joy, sadness and loss are all rigorously interwoven across the picture plane, with great skill and poise.



Genevieve Carroll, correspondence with the author, 10 March 2014

Chaim Soutine, Still Life with Cabbage , 1918 Oil on board, 53 x 44cm. The Colin collection, New York



Force of Circumstance, 2014 Oil on plywood panel 270 x 155cm. Collection of the artist

Genevieve Carroll 32


Rosemarys Garden - Autumn Harvest, 2014 Oil on canvas 274 x 152cm. Collection of the artist

Rosemary Valadon 34

Arriving from another perspective, Rosemary Valadon’s painting, Rosemary’s Garden – Autumn Harvest, 2014, is a striking counterpoint to Carroll’s Force of Circumstance, 2014. Both artists are passionate gardeners celebrating and sharing the abundance they enjoy in a good year. While Carroll in her painting works a fine line between abstraction and figuration, Valadon pursues the figurative motif, weaving light and shadow with authority and panache. The artist’s mastery of chiaroscuro creates the effect of anointing each subject chosen for the table with a sense of purpose, reminiscent of the great 17th century Flemish painters such as Pieter Claesz and Frans Snyders. The horizontal format allows the viewer to leisurely peruse the tableau, contemplating the weight, shape, tone and texture of each object in this intriguing assembly. As Valadon points out: ‘… the subjects are what I regularly grow in my garden (with the pumpkin, corn, chillies and persimmon supplied by neighbours) …the yabbies cooked and uncooked are from my dam . . . and I have made very successful quince paste from the quinces.’ 10 The one sombre note in the composition is the figure of a dead rabbit tucked up beside a bowl of produce at the centre of the table. Yet, it too will enter the food chain as a tasty morsel from the artist’s kitchen. Rosemary’s Garden – Autumn Harvest, speaks of time passing – as Hill End’s long, frosty winter is about to take hold. Gavin Wilson Exhibition Curator



Rosemary Valadon, correspondence with the author, 28th July, 2014

Frans Snyders, Still Life with Fruit, Wan - Li porcelain and squirrel, 1616. Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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