Historically, “nature morte” has symbolically represented transformation, the cyclical nature of time, and the transitory nature of existence. What does it mean to paint nature-based still-life paintings in the year 2009? Can the genre reflect on contemporary environmental issues or the experience of nature as mediated through photography, advertising, tourism, and urban sprawl? Or is it so over-determined that it can’t move beyond nostalgia? What does it mean to gather, to visually document, to reconfigure bits of the natural world as it is disappearing around us? Does this entail a responsibility? Can the artist simply respond to nature and its previous representations? Is this enough?
Jacklyn St. Aubyn’s paintings do not confront these issues straight on, but these issues circulate around her paintings as they do all contemporary landscape and nature-based still-life painting. They are modest paintings that reference botanical drawings and Audubon bird paintings from the nineteenth century (when the concept “nature” was socially constructed), a history of decorative arts based on natural forms, and traditions of Euro-Western still-life painting.
St. Aubyn’s subject matter is gathered from her personal world—nature experienced and collected in her yard, neighborhood, and community—the outer world brought inside the domestic environment and studio.
The paintings in this exhibition employ three formats: horizontal diptychs, most often juxtaposing a bird or a plant with a simple still life of fruit rendered in three-dimensional space; single panel vertical paintings with all-over, nature-based decorative arts as their subject; or verticals with birds and botanical fragments floating in horizontal bands of different sizes stacked on top of each other in flat pictorial space.
For me, the horizontals just didn’t work. The diptych format, especially those with miniature still-life paintings within the larger painting, combined with the exhibition’s title The Meaning of Things, suggested a correspondence or conceptual dialogue between the images that didn’t happen. Other than referring to outdoor/indoor spaces, the choice of which images were juxtaposed seemed arbitrary, or perhaps, just a visual decision. While there was often a shift in perspective from one panel to the other, the still lifes remained generic and uninteresting. Whatever symbolism or meaning might be there for the artist was too private and personal to have larger resonance, and the visual strategy of juxtaposition offered by the diptych format remained unengaged.
The vertical paintings are a different story. Here St. Aubyn is at her best. The painting format and composition are not being asked to speak to conceptual concerns. We can just experience the paintings for their visual pleasure.
I looked less to “the meaning of things,” and simply enjoyed the juxtaposition of images for their superb color and attention to detail. Pattern After WM re-presents and activates the tendrils of a William Morris pattern in blues and greens with highlights of magenta and red. The dark green and red flat pattern of leaves and roses in Rose Tree calls up early American drawing and needlework, referencing not only marginalized creative traditions but also painting’s inherent decorativeness.
Other vertical paintings such as Rupture, Birds and Thistle, and Remembrance are divided into horizontal bands of flat color. Remembrance utilizes a cool palette of grayed blues, greens, and aquamarines. A “couple” of birds float above a branch heavy with ripe purple plums. The bottom section introduces natured-based repetitive pattern in conversation with the birds and plants floating above, at the same time as it functions as a decorative border.
The painting has a strong graphic sensibility, engaging traditions of natural-history illustration, while remaining a painting.
What we collect and combine is ultimately about creating a sense of self. What the painter collects and visually combines not only creates a sense of self, but also constructs a symbolic world within the painting site. St. Aubyn layers opaque and transparent paint in a traditional illustrative manner. I found myself welcoming those places of variation where the paint ever so slightly piled up thicker—where the paint surface itself came alive. Upon close examination you can see that the birds and fruit are not painted on a colored ground but rather that the so-called “backgrounds” are carefully painted “around” the nature forms, so that the paint and pictorial space-ground are what connect the “things” depicted.
The works I enjoyed most were those that simply painted nature and its representations. St. Aubyn’s paintings are unpretentious and genuine—about the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of painting. This is their strength. But is it enough? At times I found myself wanting these paintings to speak through, even interrogate, those histories of nature-based imagery they reference. Political content and visual pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.