Kevin Lincoln: The Eye’s Mind Art Gallery of Ballarat, to June 19
Still life is an introspective art, more solitary and turned in on its own world than any other kind of painting. The landscape painter is out in nature, exposed to its vagaries as well as its beauties; the portraitist is of necessity sociable and must achieve a kind of intimacy with the sitter; history painters and others who work on a large scale deal with models, studio assistants and patrons; but the still life painter spends days at a time alone in the studio with a few inanimate objects.
It is for this reason that still life is a mirror of human subjectivity, both in a personal and an impersonal or general sense. In the first case, still life can reflect the aesthetic sensibility of the artist, as for example in the case of Giorgio Morandi. The still-life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, the greatest master of the genre, unite an intensely personal sensibility with an almost miraculous apprehension of the materiality of each of his subjects.
In the more general sense, still life mirrors human engagement with the world of objects. Landscape deals with our relationship with a reality that is non-objective and transcendent. The natural world takes us beyond ourselves, but objects bring us back to our sensory, appetitive and associative responses to things.
That is why so many classic Dutch still lifes of the 17th century represent food, often eliciting sensory memories in specific combinations — asking us to recall, for example, the tastes of salted fish, olives and white wine.
Sound, touch, smell and other sensations are also evoked in still life, and one of the two most popular subjects for complex still life compositions in the 17th century was the allegory of the five senses. The other was the memento mori, for everything to do with objects and appetites belongs ultimately to the world of illusion that is doomed to perish. The interest of still life as a genre lies in the way it can simultaneously express pleasure in the world of objects and our appetitive response to them, and reflect on the transience of such pleasure, thus creating a space for meditative detachment from desire.
The introspective, quiet and meditative spirit of Kevin Lincoln’s painting is immediately apparent when you enter his retrospective at Ballarat, and all the more so because you are obliged to pass through another exhibition, antithetical in sensibility, to get there. In Lincoln’s work, colours are low in tone and chroma, canvases are often large, but mainly to create a sense of space around quite small objects, and compositions are sparse and laconic.
The inspiration of Japanese art — of decorative screens and Zen-inspired ink painting — is immediately apparent, and yet all the elements of classic still life are present. There are vases and books, kitchen utensils, fruit and vegetables and even fish; and there are masks and skulls, too, recalling the memento mori tradition.
Lincoln cites his predecessors not only implicitly — one painting has three vases huddled together in a clear homage to Morandi — but explicitly as well, through drawings or prints included among the elements of the still life itself. Thus Braque makes an appearance in a 1994 triptych, Lucian Freud in a work from 1994, Morandi in a 2011 charcoal drawing and Giacometti in another drawing from the same year.
The posture of the Pierre Bonnard self-portrait at the Art Gallery of NSW is echoed in one of Lincoln’s self-portraits, while Japanese prints, an African tribal mask and various Chinese and Japanese bottles and tea-ceremony cups appear throughout the exhibition. The repetition of these motifs, often in different combinations, shows that, like Morandi’s bottles, they are familiar elements of the artist’s environment, not only regular painting props but talismanic aids in his painted meditations.
Their spatial treatment is significant too: more often than not Lincoln’s objects float, as we also find in some Zen paintings, in broad empty spaces, with no clear sense of resting on a horizontal surface. At other times they are lined up on a tabletop or shelf, but the horizontal surface is precisely at the implied eye-level of the painting, as for example in the triptych Mask and skull (2011) or the two little paintings of Japanese tea-ceremony cups.
The reason these two entirely different approaches to space are equally unsettling and in fact complementary in meaning is that they both ignore or negate the way we normally encounter things in space. We are made all the more conscious of this by discovering objects sketched from life with great care and an accurate sense of naturalistic space in the sketchbooks included in the exhibition. Thus a 4thcentury Greek kylix is drawn as one would see it from above, in a museum display case. More subtly, two Japanese sake bottles are drawn as we would see them set on a tabletop in the studio. Here too we are looking down slightly, because our eye level is above the height of the tabletop: the bottles are thus seen in perspective, their open mouths forming an ellipse and their base curved.
In the paintings, objects may be seen from above or from the side, but in either case the sense of naturalistic space is disrupted. And the reason for this — although of course it is intuition, not reasoning, that leads to the aesthetic choice — is that naturalistic space, in establishing an intelligible relation of distance, position and angle of vision between the eye and the thing, also implicitly insists on the separation between subject and object. In Lincoln’s painted world, however, objects float in an indeterminate space of the subjective imagination.
That is not to say that they are necessarily vaguely painted: some forms are merely suggested, but others are articulated very clearly. Knives, for example, are painted with a vivid clarity that leaves no doubt as to their function, and yet somehow remain archetypal rather than succumbing to the temptation of superficial specificity.
Thanks to an unfailing sense of tact in this respect — for mass-produced objects seldom work in still-life paintings — Lincoln is able to paint everyday things, such as an espresso coffee pot, and turn them into painted forms with a wholly new pictorial interest. He is also able to create compelling quasi-narrative associations of objects, the simplest yet perhaps most striking of which is a picture of a fish and a knife.
The knife is indeed the most prominent motif with narrative connotations, although the corkscrew that appears only by itself in a small painting, with both its screw and its blade open, is quietly threatening. Readers of Lewis Carroll may recall Humpty Dumpty’s song from
HIS TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO SPACE ARE EQUALLY UNSETTLING
Kevin Lincoln’s Mask and skull (2010), top; Knife triptych (2008), left; and Untitled (2002), below