Thanks to excavations at Pompeii, we have long known that the practice of still life painting is (a) ancient and (b) remarkably consistent in its use of well-worn conventions. For example, the double or triple level in the arrangement of objects, and the selection of what we might term pieces of the ordinary. And, if you examined Still Life With Peaches, from Pompeii, circa 79 AD, and Still Life With Pink Fish by Margaret Olley, 1948, you will not discern any obvious tremor in the evolution of still life painting. What Olley and the anonymous Pompeiian artist set out to achieve was the depiction of an arrangement, where colour is the great harmoniser of the space between the objects, in the same way that darkness fixes the planets. But of course, still life’s viscosity to change could not withstand the catalyst of genius, the nature of which is to bypass convention. Both Louis-Léopold Boilly, who invented trompe l’oeil, and Paul Cezanne, did this. But while Boilly created a technique – the optical illusion of realism – Cezanne created a new way of looking at still life. And his experiments, though he would not have labelled them thus, bequeathed to us a modern version, so to speak, of Vermeer’s mythical camera obscura, so that, with a contemporary still life artist like Caroline Ward, we are amply equipped to recognise her flawless mixture of detached precision, compositional repose and perspective accuracy.
Standing before Caroline’s Cracked Egg; Emblem’s Weave; Four Mushrooms or Folded Napkin is not simply a matter of admiring the representation of verisimilitude: the rewards are too easy. However, understand how Caroline is not giving a single view of anything, and rather than an existential take on the transience of nature, she is in fact stabilising the impression, and how she does this is the kernel of her gift: a display of realism which is astonishing to the eye. And the astonishment, I hope you will agree, is instantaneous. There is no preamble, no eyes beating about the visual bush. There is about her paintings a cinéma vérité quality in that improvisation, however subtle, can unveil truths. This is observational painting at its zenith. With Mackerel Still Life, the artist was motivated by the iridescence of a fish she was gutting for supper. The Alessi Platter, and specifically the play of light around it, was spotted in a shop, and once she combined both, the fish and the prop, she had the luxury of determining every aspect of the painting. The use of lemon for a splash of colour, and the fact that Mackerel Still Life is the summation of a flow of perception, never fixed, emphasizes how a still life of this quality cannot be moored to a single view. Since her last exhibition in Kelly’s Hotel, one can detect a profound assurance and confidence in her still life compositions, specifically the courage not to refrain from the complex. In La Chaise Rouge, Caroline gives us an antidote to the lack of nuance often found in the manic swiping of visuals on social media: La Chaise Rouge is almost Zen-like in its appeal to the image-obsessive, Twitter and Instagram nerd in 2019, to submit to its contemplative calm, step out of yourself and return to the essential. Look again carefully at La Chaise Rouge and there is the intimation of an absent presence, or perhaps an arrival. The door frame, through which the light bounces from one room to another, is a metaphor for the human condition: the walls are devoid of that which enchants us, a painting, and in this way Caroline might be saying that in the absence of a linear story, you can apply your own narrative. We might feel alone, but there is no anguish. William Crozier famously said that landscape was a vehicle through which he could say anything, and he saw it as a means, not a subject, through which he could express the intangible. Imperceptible or not, neither art not nature is ever as cold or as detached as a glass, or a plate, and the still life reflected in art always reflects the artist’s own mind, but the still life artist, beset by many challenges, walks the tightrope between stabilizing an impression and taming transience. Caroline Ward is a still life artist of the soul, an interpreter of the visible world, but an artist whose precision never looks laboured, although you know it must have been, and therein is the magic and mystery of the creative act. (Caroline Ward, Kelly’s Hotel, 2019)