Katy Macleod (2022) Review of Life STILL, Green Hill Arts, 23 June – 3 September, 2022.
Life STILL presents the work of eight artists whose distinctive practices help to shape a contemporary take on the genre of still life. The exhibition has been conceived as a reflection on the stilling of life during the many months of the pandemic lockdowns, when lives were literally stilled and attention was drawn much more directly to the detail of our environments. In the neat reversal of the title from still life to Life STILL the curators have both drawn on the traditions of still life art, the invitation to think of time passing and of the fragility of life but also questioned what we might now pay attention to. Perhaps it is this sense which allows for the quiet coherence of an exhibition of eight very different bodies of work. There is a seam of ideas around what might happen when an object, perhaps an object we might know well, is intensely scrutinised and how such scrutiny might begin to unravel what we can literally see. The detail here is crucial. If we take Rob Carter’s Bathtub empty and Bathtub full with CMYK bottles, both bathtubs are actually empty, both have bottles on the top edge of the bath. Is it a question of perspective as the painting titled ‘with CMYK bottles’ pays much closer attention to the same bottles also present in Bathtub empty. In viewing Sian Bonnell’s photographic work a few black beans, an artichoke, a paper doily, an open book with rose leaves and a cake are each presented starkly on a white tablecloth or in the case of the cake also a white plate. The attention to detail is mesmerising: the cake’s icing oozes lush and glinting over the richly golden sponge, a hugely seductive invitation to consider the title, The Pangs of Love #3. Bonnell’s tightly impeccable control of staging and photographing each object is startled by this title and the viewer is drawn again to think about our everyday, what we have, what we know and what we cherish. Tori Day’s paintings, perhaps most clearly indicated in the painting titled Still Here, detail the resistance of our objects to the inevitable changes and clear outs in our lives. In this small painting a highly worn enamel jug sits as if abandoned, the symbolic 20 ounce lettering near its top attesting to times past but here it still is. It has endured but somehow registers what has been lost. And loss and what might be about to happen is part of the viewing process in Life STILL. Susan Derges’ ILLUMINATO used an alchemical process to distil neat alcohol from wine; the alcohol is then burned producing a flame in the single glass crucible which literally cups this flame for as long as the process might last. This understanding of what is live and how this might be altered through time is explored in Gail Flockhart’s film, Life Still Moving. Inevitably, in Flockhart’s film the mounds of grapes, bread and peaches will decay, while the candle, a staple element in still life painting, will flicker out. In opposite vein, James Lake’s Sunflowers, an obvious take on Van Gogh’s many versions, is obdurately about the joy of making from discarded materials, in this case cardboard. What we see, what we discard, what we use, what we enjoy are all in focus now. We know Bonnell’s cake could be eaten and it would be delicious, after all.
In the distinct, precise and stark depiction of objects in this exhibition there is a lushness of surface and an obvious enjoyment of medium, whether it is painting, photography, film or video etc ; the viewer needs to be seduced by surfaces to look intently at what seeps through. In Chris Cook’s paintings, so much larger in scale than those of Rob Carter’s or Tori Day’s, the surface of graphite and resin suspended in oil provides again a lushness to the depiction of a cut glass jug or bowl or flowers, which through the black obduracy of graphite invites reflection on what these things are. Paying attention to the everyday, the detail of it can lead to opening up perception: maybe think of Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, a detailing of lives, habits and possessions in one multiple occupancy house and how such details draw out the elusiveness of life’s meaning. It is through the detail that consciousness can get a kind of hit, a momentary shock. Roland Barthes called this the ‘punctum’ in his writing about photography. As I understand such shocks they somehow lead the person viewing to think beyond the personal to what we have in common, a kind of collective understanding. Still LIFE lifts the genre of still life into the moment of looking, perhaps best indicated by reference to Tim Pearce’s tiny wet collodion ambrotype which you can only properly view with the aid of a magnifying glass on the wall beside it. Here the still life is as you might anticipate, dying flowers, a bottle and a dead bird. This still life is exquisite in its tininess. The title, These things she gave to me might suggest a love lost but the thick, black wooden frame and the object itself might also obstruct that reading. This exhibition is unmissable. It taunts the imagination as well as habitual thinking and does so apparently through the simplest of means- imaging what we have at home in our own environments.
Gus Watcham (2016) Tori Day and Charlie Day – Disjecta Membra, Studio One Gallery, London July 2016
A good two person show is like a good marriage.
Concerns and values run alongside each other, giving support and strength, an everyday reminder of what matters. Within this companionship each allows the other their freedom to roam and be themselves.
Here the values are evident. These are people who live and breathe painting, who paint in their sleep, who will not rest until they’ve got it wrong, and then got it wrong better. The concerns are human. For Tori, the often-disregarded objects, suggestive of family, childhood and loss stand out with a startling realism, while the shadows they cast do their own thing in the background, refusing to behave, changing everything. For Charlie, humour, pain and tenderness combine in work that brings the art of ‘painting badly well’ to a new tipping point.
The titles are integral. They talk to each other and the viewer, sometimes explanatory, sometimes like a phrase whispered in a dream. They can evoke poetry, or the complexity of a novel.
Here the boundaries of similarity are stretched into difference, an exploration of memory, of being together and apart, and what it means to be alive and painting now, in this vulnerable and uncertain world.
Charles Williams (2015) 'We Are All Clinging On', The Jackdaw, November/December, pp. 10–11.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo lshiguro's story of an alternative future in which human beings are cloned to supply spare parts for the non-cloned, affected me very strongly. It's been made into a film - my wife and watched it together and for weeks after our conversation turned to it. I bought the book. I'd been a fan of lshiguro years before but hadn't read much recently. The film is a very transparent version of the book.
The story shows two different existences, the more. or less unknown 'normal' world and the reflected world of the clones. destined to die in their twenties, living their short lives in the discarded material possessions and spaces of the others. They don't really know when they'll die, but as Harrison Ford's character says at the end of Blade Runner, who does?
They are brought up in a 'school', where they are taught to keep themselves free of anything that might make them unhealthy. To run about, to do Art, and write stories. Every now and then they receive boxes of cast-off stuff, clothes, broken toys, second-hand possessions and they gleefully trade for it, making collections.
The narrator of Never Let Me Go is a carer - like many of the cloned people, she is allowed to live longer in return for time spent comforting those about to be operated on, to make their 'donations'. Right until the time they 'complete'. She is given a little flat and an old car and is expected to drive endlessly over Britain, from hospital to hospital, holding hands, talking, reading aloud. Eventually, the inevitable takes shape; carers stop caring and begin their donations.
I am reminded of the film when I look at Charlie and Tori Day's work. I talk about them together, because unlike many artist couples, their approach and their attitudes are so similar. I first became aware of them through Facebook links, and then Tori Day and I both had work in Charlie Dutton Gallery's CRASH Open a few years ago, and my wife spotted her tiny still life of Post Office rubber bands in a ball, and fell in love with it. We bought it. Since then we have been in sporadic contact and find we share some tastes.
They paint the discarded, the used up. The rubber bands are a memento of a dull office job working for the Post Office, fielding complaints about careless posties discarding red rubber bands. Charlie Day's paintings of twisted-up tubes of paint are the end of a day's work. These are still paintings though. The activity is meshed into the image: to paint paint, to spend hours thinking about a time when you spent hours filling time. His paintings of old cameras stand a little back from 'painting', and the brush seems to query this strange object with the sympathy of a fellow outcast - 'What was this old thing used for?'
Small paintings of discarded things, by artists more concerned with integrity and truth than their careers, fetch small prices. Hope may drive you on, but you will get there in an old car. The mainstream is forbidden you. To be a rhyparographer, a painter of waste stuff, you must expect that.
There is a Euan Uglow-esque idea of 'accuracy' and 'proper painting' in their work, but there is also a distance. These are not people trained in the Slade life room, but taught by someone who was. It's an odd serendipity; my first teacher was taught by and was friends with Uglow, and, like them, I inherited a sense of the seriousness of painting, and perhaps a sense that I'd missed something.
I am interested in the problem of observational drawing, and it has fascinated me since I was at art college. I chose the RA Schools over the RCA for my MA because the RA still taught 'Academic LifeDrawing', even if only for two days a week and only in the first term. Academic life drawing is based on the idea that an artist needs to be able to represent figures in painting. Reynolds set up the system for that purpose, because of his views about the importance of History Painting over other genres – landscape, portrait, or indeed, still life. It is tonal and concerned with visual information. By the time I was there the whole system had been long superseded. Obviously, but the faint voice of the past still whispered about the corridors. I left the RA Schools in 1992, a couple of years after the world order shifted on its axis. Neil Walton, my fellow student, suggested we·visit Moscow or Leningrad to see their Art Academies, because the training Soviet artists had was similar to the training whose echoes we bad picked up. It was an intriguing idea, but too frightening. Years later I visited the Magyar Kepzomuveszeti Egyetem, the Hungarian University of Fine Art, and spoke to the young man who ran the life drawing course. He told me with evident pride how his predecessor could draw a horse in its different positions around a riding school, simply by seeing where its hoof prints were.
I can't imagine a world where that would be necessary, but that was the authentic voice of the Academy. The skill is acquired towards a definite purpose; the Academy wanted to produce painters capable of making such an image because such an image was necessary in making history paintings. There's no equivalent skill in contemporary fine art education, except perhaps being ironic.
There was another approach to observational drawing, which was the Euston Road School's. The 'fools in old style hats and coats' who started it were reacting, like the leftist intellectuals they were, against bourgeois, elitist Surrealists and Abstractionists, who made work the common man just couldn't understand. Like the Mass Observation people, they had a strong belief in the common man, and the original idea was to paint the ordinary world as honestly as possible, but the 'ordinary world' seems to have disappeared from the manifesto after a while, at least in the work of William Coldstream.
His 'dot and carry' method of analysing form requires a motionless subject to be present for a long period of time. Delacroix's injunction about the man falling from the second floor window would not do; the subjects of working from observation with this attitude must have the characteristic of stillness in common. In stillness only will the Truth be discovered. The doctrine extended to the various other institutions where the Euston Road artists taught, to Camberwell and the Slade.
The result being countless paintings of dispirited models 'sitting normally' demanded. Sitting like a still life. Uninterested in 'mere' illustration, the true Sladist is concerned only with the facts. 'I don't paint portraits!' is a characteristic claim, as if not wanting to paint-the person before you were some kind of virtue.
Currently I teach on a degree course in an art department taken over by a Slade graduate and staffed exclusively by other ex-Slade students from the Uglow camp. You'd think that figurative, observational painters would respect each other, but the greatest bile is always reserved for those closest to us. In a seminar last year, I used the word 'image' to describe a piece of work, and one of my colleagues bellowed the word back repeatedly at me, "Image! Image! Image!" as if somehow I had shown a weakness. What are paintings if not images? Truth?
Personally, I lump the London School chunky painters in with the Euston Road camp, too - the struggle to recreate what is before them is supposedly the subject, not the tastefully degraded surface in pleasantly modulated earth colours that results, in the same way that the firmfleshed young woman in a provocative pose is not the point of a Uglow painting at all, but about the existential crisis induced by looking at her for long, long hours. Never mind the subject, feel the existential struggle.
But we don't look at or see things like that, our eyes move about, our brains interpret. Never mind the tautology of Uglow's claim that he could have painted the same picture with a block of wood, it's just the figure is more interesting; the question asked by his painting is to do with the subject's nature as much as the subject's position, whether he accepts it or not. It is a naked woman, and not a block of wood.
The difference between Slade-type painting and Tori Day's approach to still life is not as simple as that the objects she paints have a meaning to her while the life room's professionally motionless naked lady is supposed to mean little to the true Sladist. The difference is in the integrity of the image. Without the object she chooses to paint, Tori Day's painting would not exist. Charlie Day's Marmite pots mean too much; his antiquated cameras cock too ironic a snook at the idea of looking and recording for the paintings to be 'about the process'. Preparing the board, he says, sometimes takes longer than painting the picture. It's not the struggle, it's the activity of making the image, perhaps.
Anyway, photographs have replaced drawing. In fact, photographs seem to be Truth, now that CCTV and camera phones record everything, everywhere, always. As Will Self says, painting has achieved the side-lined status of pottery or poetry, and is just as pointless. A perky little tube of paint, twisted upwards like a hopeful erection, makes a defiant gesture, but really, it's over; the canvas is never going to make it as a serious, mainstream, effective tool of communication. The painter Iain Nicholls researched the relative subscription numbers for Modern Painters and Railway Modeller - guess which has the widest readership? Charlie and Tori Day's paintings are elegies; they are searching in the rubble of a tradition for something, anything; they bring out small trophies, souvenirs, scraps of songs, hold them up. This? Or this?
The protagonist in Never Let Me Go becomes fascinated, as many of her fellows do, with finding her 'model', the human from whom her genes have been cloned. Her powerful sexual urges lead her to suppose that her model might have been involved in pornography, and she spends hours leafing rapidly and fruitlessly through porn magazines in the hope of discovering her, sexual excitement blunted and distracted by the need to find belonging. Her friend hears of a woman closely matching her description in an office in Cromer, and they set off on a fruitless journey to stand, noses pressed against a plate glass office window, knowing the figure within bears no connection at all to the pale youngsters outside, dressed in handme-downs, cold in the Norfolk winds.
Never Let Me Go, Still-life painting by Tori Day, Charlie Day and Charles Williams is open by appointment from November 12th-26th (07919342131 to book), Studio 1 Gallery, 7-9 Wandsworth Road, SW18.
Charles Williams is a painter, lecturer and author of Basic Drawing (2011) and Basic Watercolour (2014).