Dead life

by Helen Barker

“The frame is missing, the edges of any context open out wide” – Derrida; The Truth in Painting.

When our eyes settle on an object, do they mark out its shape with gestures of inscription, or do they trace its permanence  with the same restless tension that seeks to draw out a knot, and untangle a problem? Are we transfixed, or unfixed, by a thing? Recently I’ve been thrashing about the problem of a still life.

What it means to re-name a thing on a surface, through gesture, by mark and line and form. What it means to re-gain a thing by re-making it. Not just to copy but to re-create. To make. In light of the recent “Retrospective” show I have found old threads pulling me back into my work – holes, lines of communication, the fixing and flattening of the world through imaginary representation. . . edges from which to fall. I’m brought back to a place of looking in and looking out simultaneously. What it means to occupy a dual position, the position of the object and the shadow. And what it means when those two positions exchange places.

A bird, once alive and now motionless, mid-flight and mid-pause, is perched on a tree. Animals feature prominently in the works I am drawn to. Chardin hangs them above his tables, Oudry pins them to his walls, Fairnington makes specimens of their colour and I can’t help but wonder – what am I to do with the bird I find sitting on my citrus tree, so still, and yet so present?

As I spend my final week in residence with Gandt, I notice how hard it is to engage with the stillness of life, as matter, as thing. All about me has moved so fast, the time I anticipated carving out has all but vanished into the holes I’ve painted on my walls. And today is eager to create nothing out of something, leaving traces and half eaten documents in its wake, leaving a pixel here and a hyperlink into space there. And of the stuff, of the thing, of the matter – all that is left is a bird and it’s shadow. 

Sanchez Cotan sits on my desk and winks. I tie up the bird and hang it from my rafters. Old threads pull at me like the strings on a rusty marionette, tugging at the body and turning its head so that something can be seen. What objects are to be seen? In my studio; the back of a dress, a hat, a clock, mugs and plates, empty canvases and chunks of wood, a vase, dead flowers, a dead bird. What is dead? Still life? The frame is missing, it stretches out wide. Until things are placed within it, the frame cannot be found – or it was there all along.

 

“The lack of paintings in Vermeer’s studio described by Balthasar de Monconys on 11 August 1663 is also used as an argument that he painted slowly, but the absence of paintings in an artist’s studio was not exceptional: two days later, on 13 august, Monconys visited the studio of Frans Van Mieris in Leiden, who had only one painting, the one he was working on.” -Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell & Michiel Jonker