A Still Life by Chardin, Organised by Maxwell Graham
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A still life by Chardin features exactly zero paintings by eighteenth century still-life hero Jean-Siméon Chardin. What it does include is a bunch of unrelated sculptures, assemblages, photocopies and written pages – and more! – by contemporary artists, plucked from a period of 40 years or so (German conceptualist Hanne Darboven, American sculptor B Wurtz and the Scottish/Ghanaian photographic artist Maud Sulter among them). These are gathered in an attempt at evoking Chardin’s understated focus on everyday objects through modern works; exploring the underlying poetry in the familiar and mundane. That’s the aim, anyway.
Works are dotted around without information. No credits; no context. Cardboard box full of copper tubes? You got it. Sculptures made of shelf brackets and MDF? Why not? Boxes of photos, pavilion models and abstract projections of I’m not sure what? All in.
By presenting them this way, the artworks become mere objects, to be read however you please. A bit like the jugs, fruit and hunks of meat in Chardin’s paintings. Unfortunately (inevitably) most lack the classical, harmonious composition that makes still life so appealing in the first place; as well as any of the morbid memento mori symbolism the old masters packed into their art. It’s not an uninteresting selection, but you wonder, at times, what the point of it all is.
Colour me basic, but the most engaging works are those that evoke the actual look of still life most closely. Take the lamp-lit image of food jars, boxes and tins in Moyra Davey’s ‘Hoboken’: an extremely painterly scene, with an almost chiaroscuro level of light/dark contrast. Or Pati Hill’s photocopied ‘Untitled (paper bag printed with fruit image)’, reminiscent of a Chardin table-top scene whacked through a Xerox. They’re quirky, austere and alluring all at once. And it’s the instances like these that truly capture the beauty in the banal.