Mirra Whale

Mirra Whale’s recent work pushes the formal and conceptual limits of the genre of still life. Showing at Mitchell Fine Art Gallery, Whale’s show ‘FODDER’ encompasses both painted still lifes, and ceramic works that deal also with the domestic. Several elements of Whale’s paintings bring these pseudo-traditional works out from under the art historical genre that precedes – and, indeed, informs – them.

Setting flowers, crockery, and cutlery on shocking white tablecloths allows the colour and texture of the objects to float to the centre of our minds as we view Whale’s paintings. While not necessarily a decision that subverts traditions of the genre, this move is handled subtly. In Winter Red Poppies and Smoked Trout Debris, for instance, the red of the poppies is bright enough to linger behind the eyes even when we look away from the painting. However, lingering in the mind just as much is the chiming of pink in the head of trout, and the flesh-coloured stains in the tablecloth that echo, more quietly and with some interference from dirtier, earthier, tones, the call of the poppies in the top corner of the picture.

Here, we’re asked to focus on the materiality — the look, the feel — of the paint, and also, I think, on the materiality of the objects represented by the paint. What’s different, sensually, between a painted red poppy and a poppy in the hand? How much texture can we see; is there colour we could apprehend through touch? These questions of synesthesia, or of the bleeding of one sense into another, are underlined by the presence of the ceramic works in the show. What’s different about the way we engage with fish painted onto stoneware, compared to fish painted onto linen?

It’s also the names of the paintings, gesturing at autobiography, or at glimpsed flashes of memory, that give the objects a kind of weightiness of meaning. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings simply list what’s shown: White Still Life With Geranium, or Pumpkin, Sardines and Praying Mantis Shadow, for instance. Elsewhere, though, the titles suggest the provenance or significance of objects in – or out of – the frame. Here, we have Garfish with Celia’s Bowl, and Found Blossoms Trafalgar Street with Pear. Emphasising the role that objects play in the stories of our lives – the way that they figure to set or to change the scene, or to set in motion courses of events that may seem like chance, or deeply intended, Whale seems to suggest that the objects she paints are weighty not just gravitationally, but also emotively.

It’s the prominence of the shadows in many of these paintings that most elegantly synthesises the conceptual and physical weight of Whale’s objects. Obstructing the flow of light, the objects’ solidity – their mass, their heft – is emphasised. Often, flowers in vases will throw almost comically protracted shadows onto the walls behinds them, the dark trace-selves of the objects leaning, or sometimes almost leering, over the rest of the scene below them. But the idea of the shadow figures in our thinking about the emotional or narrative weight of objects as well. The shadow cues us to think about the effects that objects have in the world – both through their presence before us, and in the absence that is evoked by the darkness they leave behind them. This is the classic still life theme of living and dying with a twist; Whale’s works tread the lines between the physical and the ideal, and between the timelessness of the painted image and the time-bound structure of stories.

EXHIBITION
Mirra Whale: FODDER
24 July – 7 August 2019
Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane

 

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