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Nature Morte at Guildhall Art Gallery
Image Credit: Alexander James 'The Great Leveller'.Courtesy of Guildhall Art Gallery

Nature Morte at Guildhall Art Gallery

21 October 2017 Ruth Hobley

In association with MOCA London, the Guildhall Art Gallery hosts a diverse and vibrant exhibition celebrating time-honoured themes of beauty and mortality through the reimagining of a historic artistic style. Bringing together the 16th century tradition of still life (or ‘nature morte’) and contemporary reinterpretations of the genre, Nature Morte is a showcase of the brilliant fragility of the human condition.

Barely noticeable at first, resonating throughout the gallery space of Nature Morte is the sound of a ticking clock. The passage of time is crucial to many of the pieces in this exhibition, from Saara Ekström’s time-lapse film of a continually filling and continually mouldering cup of tea that greets you as you enter, to Paul Hazelton’s Fright Wig, a fragile skull formed from months of accumulated dust, hanging precariously and slightly comically from a feather duster near the end.

Saara Ekström, Clouded Yellow Bud, 2007. Courtesy The Guildhall Art Gallery

The majority of the exhibition is housed in the two lower rooms of the gallery, with a few choice pieces spilling over into the hallway and upper amphitheatre. The first room is characterised by the systematic juxtaposition of the contemporary and the classic, with modern and historical pieces grouped side by side according to five key themes of the traditional still life: House and Home, Flora, Fauna, Food, and Death. This arrangement provides a helpful grounding in the concepts that characterise the exhibition, and also some particularly beautiful examples of 17th century still life painting, including Pieter Van de Venne’s stunningly luxurious Vase and Flowers (1655) and Willem Kall’s Still life with a pilgrim flask (date unknown).

The beauty and skill displayed in these earlier works at times threatens to throw contemporary responses into the shade. However, while the first room with its regular categories and dark green walls that give the faint impression of a stately home is more immediately suited to exhibiting the older works, the more miscellaneous and fragmented arrangement of the second gives prominence to contemporary responses, and it is in this open and less regimented setting that reinterpretations of the genre are given the space to come to life.

The pieces that work best are those which engage with elements of the traditional still life whilst challenging the preconceptions that they raise. The language of flowers in Dutch still life is given a distinctly modern twist in curator Michael Petry’s installation of three opaque glass vases filled with flowers, the colours of which correspond to the code of coloured handkerchiefs used to signify sexual preference in gay culture.  Cynthia Greig’s Nature Morte No. 3 meanwhile effectively turns the still life painting on its head, as with whitewash and marker pens she succeeds in making a photograph of a bowl of fruit look like a simple line drawing, blurring the distinction between perception and reality.

Jennifer Steinkamp, Bouquet, 2013, Computer, 20.5 x 15 ft, Courtesy of the artist and Art in Embassies, U.S. Department of State; ACME, Los Angeles; greengrassi, London; Lehmann Maupin NY

Particularly arresting is photographer Mat Collishaw’s Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Juan Soria), an image that evokes the grandeur and ceremony associated with Dutch still life paintings, whilst forming part of a series of photographs each of which depicts the final meal of a real-life inmate on Death Row. The incongruous appearance of a bagel and cheeseburger amongst the decadent mountain of food in this image, alongside the more classic grapes, peaches, and walnuts, gestures subtly towards the image’s modernity, and serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a death that is not only an inevitability but a condemnation.

Detail from Mat Collishaw, Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (Juan Soria), 2011. Courtesy The Guildhall Gallery

Given the dual focus of the exhibition, and the wide disparity between the two time periods, both in terms of substance and style, it is perhaps inevitable that the exhibition feels a little uneven at times. While there is undoubtedly a unifying theme, the sheer variety of responses creates a sense of disjointedness that is difficult to fully overcome. However, there are certainly enough provocative and interesting responses to this pivotal genre to make a visit well worth one’s while. True to the tradition of the still life, if there is one thing shared by the majority of the pieces on display, it is an appreciation for the fragility of human existence; yet the works of Nature Morte strive most frequently to capture and memorialise what is fleeting, rather than mourn what has been lost.

Nature Morte runs from 7 September 2017 – 2 April 2018 at the Guildhall Art Gallery, tickets are £8 with concessions available, under 12s free.

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