One of my favorite pieces in the National Gallery of Victoria is Édouard Manet’s 1880 work The Melon. At around 13 x 17 inches, it’s a modest study of a rather warty specimen, but I’m always tickled by the addition of an ornate gold frame far too large for the humble painting. It’s this incongruity that always draws me back to the gallery whenever I happen to be in Melbourne.
An analogous experience can be found in Marian Drew’s most recent body of work, Centrepiece, which premiered at Turner Galleries in June. This new series of photographs operates in counterpoint to her mournful still lives of recent years, which feature native Australian animals killed by motor vehicles, poisoned waterways, and other human catalysts, all displayed with the gravitas of Dutch still lives. Unlike this past work, Centrepiece focuses on more incongruous subject matter: watermelons, pineapples, quinces, and cactus flowers in precarious tabletop arrangements. These juxtapositions are enlivened by an awkward tension, like mismatched dinner guests.
Drew explains how this series employs humor as an alternative means of tackling the historical, environmental, and existential conditions explored in her past work:
“In response to my own previous photographic series Still Life/Australiana (2003–2012), that explored the deaths of wild animals, I aim to bring a certain joie de vivre to the site of the table, imbued with temporality and lightness. The regenerative image of play provides an instructive alternative to Judeo-Christian guilt. I believe that, through our own imagination and engagement, we have to find sustaining metaphors for living that reflect an understanding of our own folly. Not for a moment do I think that play is foolish. I believe that play is a serious creative tool for finding relevant meaning through intuitive understanding.”
The apparent spontaneity of these images belies their painstaking construction. Drew works with very long exposure times, lighting parts of the composition with a torch, employing photographic backgrounds, and sometimes constructing ceramic artifacts. For those that know her work, these elaborate, contrived scenes draw the viewer back into the narrative of colonial consumption and destruction evoked by the Still Life/Australiana series, as always through the lens of European art history. In this context, the Centrepiece works operate in the vanitas tradition, pointing to the folly of human endeavor and the transience of earthly pleasures.
Marian Drew: Centrepiece is on view at Turner Galleries in Perth through June 28, 2014.