Cultural Traffic

Still Life with 
Dying Purple Dahlia & Pear
Still Life with Grandma's Incense Burner & Dandelion Clocks
Still Life with Dolphin Vertebrae & Spiders Nest in Flax
Still Life with Figs, Passionfruit, Spearmint & Magnolia Blossom
Still Life with Karaka Drupes & Gecko Skin
Still Life with Seaweed & Lemons
Magnolia and Lemons installation shot.
Still Life with 
Dying Purple Dahlia & Pear - installation shot.
Mark Amery on Fiona Pardington bringing new life to the still-life.

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By Mark Amery

I am seduced. I feel compelled to drive from my home in Paekakariki into Wellington to see the work in the flesh. It is as if it holds a perfume.

Fiona Pardington’s new still-lifes are exquisite; made to be tantalized by and then savoured.

The late 17th century Dutch masters perfected a hyper-real oil painting technique that made it hard to believe their still-lifes were made of paint. Pardington flips this – it’s hard to believe these are photographs. I had to go see.

The still-life has a history that goes back to the ancients, but they had a 17th century golden age which Pardington references, beginning with the explorations of light of Caravaggio and ending with the Dutch. In these works there is a mastery of high dramatic play, leaving us keenly considering matters beyond the fruits on our plate – life, death, desire and decay.

In part the still-life has had such a long cultural life because it allows the artist control of their material to play with light and composition. It featured prominently in the experiments of photography inventors Daguerre and Fox-Talbot. Here the new tool is Photoshop. Pardington has worked it hard, the exhibition pushing it adventurously in its bold use of dramatic light and manipulation of textures. It doesn't all work. Sometimes life gets lost in the shadows. At other times the results are fresh and intoxicating.

In Still Life with Dying Purple Dahlia and Pear, the rich head of bloom in a broken vase drops beads of moisture, the drops caught by the camera just as they slip from the flower. Fallen petals turn into drops of paint. Pardington plays artfully with this slippage between the real and surreal. Elsewhere in this fine work a band of gold sits erotically and wittily on a pear, like some medieval footnote.

Pardington has a long history with the still-life, renown for imbuing taonga with warmth and life. Yet these new works represent bold shifts by her in the arrangement  of different objects of varied value to construct new narratives. I love that she has capitalised on her sensitivity to the play of light and attunement to the sensual by working so directly within a rich resonant tradition. The work revels in making daring, finely attuned plays with form and colour.

Where so much contemporary art photography stills and chills life from an ironic remove (much like a Pak n Save brochure does to a cabbage, commenting on the empty repetition of the digital stock image), Pardington continues to realise objects' and the photograph's great poetic potential. Here, making still-lifes bound for grand dining rooms, the work speaks of bicultural roots - probably inspired by the French and Maori attention to food and it's sensual role. We dine together to whet out appetites for other things to come.

Years spent photographing objects in museums here and in Europe has made Pardington attuned to how flora and fauna were part of a traffic in ideas and values, involving both the exotic and the mundane. The golden age of the still-life was also the golden age of discovery of new worlds and oceans, and of botany and zoology.

These works carry a contemporary perspective on this travel and traffic. They are not only memento mori in the provision of poetic signs of time passing and things dying - from dandelion clocks to gecko skins - but of cultures meeting across seas. Take the dolphin vertebrae, spider's web and dried flax flowers in a work that pushes the play of light just a little too far.

In one of the strongest works seaweed is wrapped around roughly torn branches of a lemon tree and it's blemished fruit, further knotted by frayed, ripped drapery.  You can almost taste the bittersweet tang of salt and lemon, as if some cure for scurvy. The most clumsy prop in the show here is an imitation skull (an unsubtle commentary on value and the vanitas tradition) but it's interesting that in work from the same series shown in Auckland it has been replaced by a hei tiki. Sitting atop rustic tabletops (the kind of distressed paint jobs you see in the mimicry of antiques in furniture shops) this is all deliciously close to cliche, and for the most part Pardington daringly rides the line between the ordinary and extraordinary extremely well.

There is also self portraiture among the artefacts and the recognition that objects carry stories. Featured are several family heirlooms, one explicitly referred to: Still Life with Grandma's Incense Burner and Dandelion Clocks. Like whakapapa, Pardington knows history is a personal business.

  • Flora, Fauna, Fiona Pardington, Suite, until September 1

Written by

Mark Amery

16 Aug 2012

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media. He is co-curator of public art programme Letting Space.

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