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P A U L

u n n a t u r a l

K I L S B Y

h i s t o r i e s


P A U L u n n a t u r a l

K I L S B Y h i s t o r i e s


Pa u l K i l s by, U n n a t u r a l H i s t o r i e s , 2 0 1 8 w w w. p a u l k i l s by. c o m D e s i g n e d a n d p r o d u c e d by R o s a mu n d Y i p, 2 0 1 8 w w w. r o s a mu n d y i p. c o m P r i n t e d a n d b o u n d i n t h e U n i t e d K i n g d o m by Te w ke s bu r y P r i n t i n g C o m p a ny w w w. t e w k e s bu r y p r i n t i n g . c o m

A l l p h o t o g r a p h s ©   Pa u l K i l s by, 2 0 1 8 . A l l r i g h t s r e s e r ve d I n t r o d u c t o r y E s s ay © J a m e s A t t l e e , 2 0 1 8 . A l l r i g h t s r e s e r ve d page 1 ISBN: 978-1-9997412-5-9


Unnatural Histories The birds in Paul Kilsby’s series Unnatural Histories loom out of the dark like star tled celebrities caught in the headlights, as surprised as we are at the prey they hold in their beaks. An owl has come face to face with a version of itself in the shape of an owl moth; the markings on the moth’s wings mimic an owl’s eyes, but have failed to ward off the nocturnal monster they evoke. In another photograph a goldfinch is wrestling an oversized Jezebel butterfly, seemingly attracted by the similarity between the insect’s colouring and its own plumage. Has Kilsby uncovered a previously undocumented strain of narcissism in the animal kingdom? In fact these images are reproductions of reproductions: the birds are examples of the taxidermist’s ar t purchased by Kilsby over the internet, cunningly constructed facsimiles of their living cousins in what we must now call TRW (the real world). Photographed in high resolution, engaged in apparently natural activities, they return to life through the por tal of his lens. Others travel in the opposite direction. The French for ‘still life’ is nature mor te , after all; European paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries teem with the contents of the game bag, tumbled onto tables along with meticulously rendered vegetables and fruit. The ar tistic connection between nature and death continued into the era of photography; early cameras and films were too slow to capture birds in flight and photographers relied on hunters or taxidermists to supply them with subject matter. Almost two centuries after the first photograph, close encounters with birds and animals are restricted for many of us to road-kill laid out on the verge. For his Nature Mor te series Kilsby searched for dead birds in the vicinity of his home, tenderly immor talising them in compositions that recall works by the French painter Chardin or the Spanish master of still life Juan Sánchez Cotán - apar t, that is, from a por trait of a blackbird that has crash-landed among the grasses in Albrecht Dürer’s The Large Turf . If nature has retreated from our


world, ghost images have crowded in as we Photoshop, filter and digitally alter the biographies we share online. Kilsby, however, relies on pre-digital methods of deception. The camera is easily fooled, unable to distinguish between reproduction and reality. Objects are unstable: insects grow extra wings, plastic grapes acquire a realistic bloom and apparently three dimensional elements are clipped from books or conjured from the air by his brush. The human urge to improve on nature is universal, expressed through ar t, gardening and genetic modification, as well as in television documentaries that edit the natural world to counter its lack of dramatic structure, adding atmosphere with the inser tion of musical scores. The Flora Nova series pays homage to a previous generation of illusionists, the Dutch ar tists of the Seventeenth centur y who catered to their patrons’ whims by subver ting the seasons, painting luxuriant arrangements of flowers that would never have bloomed simultaneously beyond the imaginar y realm of ar t. Kilsby goes fur ther still by using ar tificial flowers as well as real ones, grafting one species of plant onto another to create entirely new and exotic hybrids. Nothing is necessarily what it seems. In Still Life with Sunflower Seeds an egg rests on a shelf next to two sunflower seeds, refugees from Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at Tate Modern in 2010. Behind them the stem of a monstrous flower leans forward under the weight of its three blooms, a rose, a dahlia and a carnation. The seeds are illusionistic, we know; the 100 million of them that covered the floor of the Turbine Hall during the exhibition were handcrafted in porcelain by skilled ar tisans in China. Our eyes come back to the egg: it too is ar tificial, Kilsby tells me, the kind that is placed in a hen’s nest to fool it into laying. Kilsby has meticulously painted the patterns onto its shell, elevating it to the status of a natural object. In complete contrast to the Nature Mor te and Flora Nova images, in which intense, almost hallucinator y colours stand out vividly against dark or monochrome backgrounds, Kilsby’s black and white Gazing Globes hang like brooding planets


over water, inviting our contemplation while reflecting our humanity back to us through the intricate trompe l’œil patterns of marble, wood and glass he has painted on their surfaces. Inspiration for the series is drawn from several sources, but par ticularly from visits made by the ar tist to Japan and China, where the full moon’s perfect sphere has both aesthetic and spiritual significance. Reverence for the ear th’s satellite is expressed not only in Japanese ar t and poetr y but in the moon-viewing platforms in formal gardens, a cultural impor t from China during the Heian period, and in ornamental lakes designed to double the moon’s beauty through reflection. As in China, the autumn moon festival in Japan is tinged with melancholy, a time when exiles dream of home and those at home remember absent friends and family. Li Bai was one of the greatest poets of the Chinese Tang dynasty, famed for an ode he composed to solitar y drinking by moonlight. Legend has it that he drowned while attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtse river. Viewers approaching Kilsby’s work should exercise caution, unless they too find themselves out of their depth, paying the price for being unable to distinguish reality from its manipulated reflection in his ar t.

James Attlee James Attlee worked for twenty years in ar t publishing, including a decade at Tate Publishing in London. He is the author of the acclaimed Isolarion : A Different Oxford Journey; Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight; Station to Station, and, in 2017, Guernica: Painting the End of the World.


U N N AT U R A L H I S TO R I E S I n t h i s s e r ie s o f t we lve ph o t o gr aphs, taxider my specimens a r e u sed t o s t a g e ima g in e d n octur nal encounter s between p r e da to r s a n d t h e ir pre y. Th e photogr aphs gently par ody t h e g e n re o f hy pe r v is u a l n a tur al hi stor y documentar i es we see o n o u r t e le v is io n s w hi ch tend to por tr ay the n a t u r a l wo r ld a s dr a ma t ic a nd spectacul ar.  A f u r t h e r c o n c e r n is t o e x pl or e the natur e of the sti l l p h ot og r a ph in re la t io n t o t he taxider my specimen. Both, i t wo u ld s e e m, a t t e mpt t o a chieve the i l l usion of life  yet mu st m a ke do wit h do c u menting the sur face: bestilled, fi xed, c o u c h e d in a pa r a dox i cal ly eter nal pr esent tense . 


Kestrel with Flying Lizard


Golden Plover with Cockroach


Kingfisher with Violin Beetle


C u c ko o w i t h Re e d Wa r b l e r E g g


Goshawk with Dragonfly


Goldfinch with Jezebel Butterfly


Jackdaw with Scorpion


Magpie with Hawk Moth


Jay with Cicada


S t a r l i n g w i t h Wa s p


Redwing with Dobsonfly


Ta w n y O w l w i t h O w l M o t h


B O N S A I P r o pe r ly c u lt iv a t e d, bo n s a i specimens mimic , in ever y w ay, t h e ir f u ll s ize pa re n t s . Par adoxically, they ar e both ‘ n a t u r a l’ a n d ‘ u n n a t u r a l’ , n a t ur e and cul tur e , obj ect and i m a g e . In Ja pa n B o n s a i ma s t er s ar e vener ated as ar tists, d u ly cre dit e d wit h t h e a u thor ship of thei r i ndi vidual cr e a t i on s . A s in t h e s e r ie s Unnatur al Histor ies , these p h ot og r a ph s de pic t t h e ir s u b j ect at night. What happens w h e n a mo t h la n ds o n a bo nsai tr ee?


Bonsai with Snails


B o n s a i w i t h To a d


Bonsai with Hawk Moth


Bonsai with Centipede


Bonsai with Dobsonfly


N AT U R E

M O R T E

I n t h e s e fo u r ph o t o g r a ph s , dead bi r ds ar e placed i n fr ont of r e pro du c t io n s o f pa in t in g s and lit so that they appear t o oc c u py a s h a re d illu s o r y space . T hi s genr e of still life p a i n t i ng o f t e n c h a r a c t e r is e d the bi r ds as food for the t a bl e o r a s pro t a g o n is t s in a mor alising nar r ati ve .


Still Life with a Linnet


Still Life with a Jay


S t i l l L i f e w i t h a Wo o d c o c k


Still Life with a Blackbird


F L O R A

N O V A

I n t h i s s e r ie s o f s ix ph o t o g r aphs, both r eal and ar ti fi cial f l ower s a re g r a f t e d o n t o a si ngl e stem. T hi s alludes to D u t c h s t ill life pa in t in g s of the seventeenth centur y w h i ch s h ow, in t h e s a me pai nti ng, fl ower s blooming si mu l t a n e o u s ly wh ic h , in t h e r eal wor l d, only blossom i n spe c ific s e a s o n s . Th e D u tch obsession w ith fl ower s r esu l t e d in t h e ph e n o me n o n of tulipomania, r epr esenting b o t h t h e ze n it h a n d n a dir o f t he quest for flor al per fecti on. An ot h e r a llu s io n is t o t h e conti nued contempor ar y h o r t i cu lt u r a l dr ive fo r ‘ be t t er ’ fl ower s thr ough geneti c m odi fi c a t io n , F1 hy br idis a t io n and cloning.


Still Life with a Fallen Petal


Still Life with a Seahorse


Still Life with Sunflower Seeds


Still Life with a Nicotiana


Still Life with a Spider Orchid


S t i l l L i f e w i t h a D e a t h’s H e a d M o t h


G A Z I N G

G L O B E S

T h ese bla c k a n d wh it e ph o togr aphs show four per fect h ove r in g s ph e re s e a c h pa in t ed i n trompe l’œil. T hey ar e d o u bl ed by t h e ir re f le c t io n i n w ater, offer i ng a vi r tual ve r si on o f a n illu s io n . Th e g lo b e as an obj ect of meditati on i s a r e c u r re n t mo t if in both or i ental and occidental cu l t u r e s , f ro m t h e Ja pa n e s e cult of moon wor shi p to the g a z i n g g lo be s fillin g t h e g a rdens of Ludw i g ll in nineteenth ce n t u r y Bav a r ia .


Gazing Globe : Iron


G a z i n g G l o b e : Wo o d


Gazing Globe : Marble


Gazing Globe : Glass


Paul K i l sby i s a n a r t is t a n d le c t u re r s pecial i si ng in fine ar t photogr aphy. Afte r co m pl et i n g a Ph D a t t h e Roya l Col l ege of Ar t he wor ked ther e fo r m a ny yea r s a s a t u t o r ; h e is c u r re ntly a senior lectur er in Fine Ar t at Ox fo r d B r o o kes Un ive r s it y a n d a t u t or at Abingdon & Wi tney Col l ege . H e h a s wor k i n pu blic a n d pr iv a t e c o l l ecti ons in Fr ance , Amer i ca, R ussi a, Italy a n d t h e UK ; h is wo r k h a s fe a t u re d in magazi nes, j our nal s and books i nte r n a t i on a l ly a n d h e h a s e x h ibit e d extensi vely thr oughout the U K as wel l as i n F r a n ce , R u s s ia , Spa in , B u lg a r ia , a nd Tur key.

After Fabritius


For Jenna and our boys


ISBN 978-1-9997412-5-9

www.paulkilsby.com

PAUL KILSBY : Unnatural Histories  

Recent work by the fine art photographer Paul Kilsby, with an essay by James Attlee

PAUL KILSBY : Unnatural Histories  

Recent work by the fine art photographer Paul Kilsby, with an essay by James Attlee

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