Open Air,  Still Life

Open Air, Still Life

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

If you’re new to art history and can’t tell your Rembrandts from your Renoirs or your Monets from your Manets — no stress, it’s all good. But you’d probably benefit from learning the name Frances Hodgkins, who was one of our country’s most famous artists and a pretty rad chick all round. Working in the first half of the 20th century, Hodgkins used wild colours to portray abstracted, collage-style landscapes and still life scenes. At the time her work was pretty cutting-edge, and wowed a society more familiar with traditional realism. 

It has been 80 years since Hodgkins finished Still Life with Fruit Dishes, an abstract still life featuring various articles of fruit and a dreamy, mermaid-esque blue background, and in recognition the Dunedin Public Art Gallery have curated the exhibition Open Air, Still Life inspired by it. In this unique show, several major Hodgkins works are placed alongside pieces by contemporary artists, all sharing the ‘still life’ subject as a springboard for creative exploration. The result is something both whimsical and wonderful.  

Erica Van Zon’s works are the first you encounter upon entering the space, immediately establishing the fun quirky tone that flavours the whole show. Rather than paint abstracted fruit in bright colours, as Hodgkins did, van Zon has broken down the different aspects of a still life into physical, literal pieces; flat, gaudily-coloured clay watermelons and bananas rest like oddly shaped pancakes in their glass case. Van Zon’s work is a clever and playful comment on the flattened, layered style present across Hodgkins’s oeuvre.

Imogen Taylor’s Jug by the Sea provides a pleasing contrast to Hodgkins’s Red Jug, and the work of Saskia Leek and Joanna Margaret Paul are also thoughtful additions to the exhibition.  

But for me the real unexpected highlight was the series by Ronald Grierson and Vanessa Bell, tucked away at the back of the space. Both artists approached their still life subject matter with an excellent eye for line, texture and tone, producing delicate interpretations of the theme. While clearly connected to the same concerns as the other works, these pieces offer a unique alternative to the gaudy and bold style otherwise dominating the show, the two styles complimenting each other.  

An enjoyable wee exhibition, Open Air, Still Life does a great job at exploring the work of an excellent artist from new perspectives.

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2017.
Posted 1:40pm Sunday 26th March 2017 by Monique Hodgkinson.