Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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