Marian Drew’s stilled world
Posted: 21 May 2012
Traditionally, the still life genre of dead animals celebrated a fine catch, a successful hunt, food displayed waiting for the pot. Generally, the celebration was not just about successful or exciting hunting, but a celebration of food itself, human survival and blind faith in an everlasting supply.
Australia’s first professional artist, John Lewin (1770–1819), paid homage to European still-life traditions of the seventeenth century while documenting accurate size, shape and colour details of fish found in Sydney Harbour. Vital to the survival of the small white colony, exact locations on the shores of Kirribilli Point and across the harbour to Dawes Point are also noted.
Two centuries on, highly respected Australian photographer Marian Drew takes a very different view. Her subjects are the result of road kill, poisoned waters, and destruction of habitual animal and bird pathways replaced by tar and cement. Her message is not one of celebration or trophy but one of cruel death and carnage, exemplifying our lack of concern for our fellow creatures.
In 2011, Drew received an Australia Council International Studio and Curatorial Program residency in New York for six months. During her time at ISCP, acclaimed American activist, curator and writer Lucy Lippard delivered a lecture at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), based on her own book, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentred Society (New Press, 1997), in which she examines the role and effectiveness of photography in generating responsibility for sense of place and the environment. Lippard may well have been referring to the oeuvre of Drew when she stated: “Polemical, politically engaged art can still be visually appealing.” Lippard’s interest is in works “that look like artworks, not activism” with a preference for art that “escapes the art world and elopes with life”.
Marian Drew’s work, it seems, fully complies with the ideals of Lippard, as witnessed in Drew’s significant body of work between 2003 and 2009, which dramatically shifts the traditional medium of oil paint and the messages of the centuries-old art of still life. Using film rather than digital imaging, her results are simply stunning, resulting in a superior, highly defined detail.
Looking to the past for inspiration to set up her shots, Drew travelled to Germany in 2002 to study still-life painting — in particular, the large collection at Wilhelmshoehe in the city of Kassel. Through this experience, she found a new perspective expressed in her artist’s statement for her exhibition Every Living Thing at Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide, in 2007: “ ... wealthy land owners in Renaissance Europe believed that the abundance of nature was there for human consumption. I found correlations to these ideas within the local attitudes to wildlife that are killed in the drive for urban expansion and economic growth.”
There is poignancy in Drew’s evocative photographs. At first glance the stilled animals seem reverently placed upon a European woven cloth signifying civilised life. But on closer inspection, they suggest discord and disrespect by the way they are seemingly thrown down. The brilliance of the pumpkin perhaps purports another course for our survival, a more civilised path?
Works such as Kitchen View with Mask (2003) established her reputation as one of Australia’s finest contemporary photographers. Fifteenth-century Italian painting traditions which use a window frame to extend the story or idea beyond the foreground are part of Drew’s tools here, as she moves her close-up lens into a familiar ‘set’ styled in that old manner. Juxtaposed surfaces, stilled forms of fauna and vegetables, and light and dark contrasts by use of chiaroscuro are captured by long exposures and little or no artificial light. Irony lies in the story or view beyond the window, that of an Australian landscape, while the middle ground focuses on death. An incongruous mask speaks perhaps of the anonymous hunter or unseen peril.
Like Lippard, Drew’s concerns with conservation and environmental issues continue unabated. In 2011, she was invited to curate a display from the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection relating to water, titled Buoyancy. Her chosen works explored the “mythical and psychological associations we have with water and in the process seek to engage with notions of transcendence, suspension and submergence”. Her own psychological associations with water are expressed succinctly here in her Illuminated Landscapes series (2008).
In September 2011, Marion Drew exhibited in an exhibition titled Still Life at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and in November showed new work in Lima, Peru, at the Centro Cultural Inca Garcilleria (through Dianne Tanzer Gallery and Projects, Melbourne). Staying with “artworks that look like art, not activism” (Lippard) to make vital political and environmental statements is clearly publicly valued and significant to the success of this artist. n
Marian Drew is represented by Queensland Centre for Photography.
Images from top:
Marian Drew, Bandicoot on plate, 2005.
Marian Drew, Crow with salt, 2003.
Marian Drew, Emu with 2 drawn bowls, 2009.
Marian Drew, Lorikeet with green cloth, 2006.
Marian Drew, Possum and Five birds, 2003.
Marian Drew, Bird with trunk and pawpaw, 2006.