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Clare Menck: Paintings of objects

The objects Clare Menck chooses to paint have a characteristic quirkiness to them and speak of a world of personal associations. In one of her solo exhibitions, Clare invites the viewer to explore her inner world in terms of these domestic 'fetishes' that she fondles with her paintbrush. This most recent solo exhibition and catalogue focusing exclusively on her still-lifes are both entitled "clare menck: paintings of objects" (5-20 November 2008, i-Art Gallery, 71 Loopstreet, Cape Town, tel. +27 (0)21 424 5150).

Clare studied Fine Arts at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch. South African-born, of German/Dutch (Afrikaans) descent, she lives on the West Coast with her painter husband and two children.

The following is an essay by Prof. Michael Godby included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

Recent Still Life paintings by Clare Menck: The Fine Art of Paradox.

More than other genres such as Portraiture, Landscape, Subject Painting, etc., Still Life painting is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, it is the only genre that is actually constructed in the artist’s studio. Typically, Still Life paintings are composed from objects that either belong to the studio or are brought there for the purpose of painting. The image is created from these objects behind the closed door of the studio, totally separate from the real world beyond and outside. On the other hand, however, within this private space, the artist is in closer contact with the material she or he is painting than in any other genre. Still life painters are free to experience the physical reality of their chosen material – by touch, by holding, by moving, etc. - in any way they want. This disjunction within the reality of Still Life painting is central to the genre and it creates a distinct way of looking at the world. In her recent Still Life work, Clare Menck explores this paradox on several different levels.

If one were to characterize the way Still Life painting encourages one to see the world, it would be in terms of art. Even casual arrangements of forms on a surface can suggest the work of certain artists – from a surprisingly wide range of styles. Arranged differently, a few apples, for example, can evoke the work of such different masters as Cotan, Chardin or Cezanne. The point is that, even before photography, the art of Still Life taught the Western viewer to both introduce a sort of frame into the view of objects in the real world and to focus on painterly concerns such as light and texture on the surface of objects, but especially on the relationships between forms, and between forms and the real or imagined frame. The art of Still Life, therefore, encourages a peculiarly studied way of looking. Clare Menck has long been intrigued by this genre. In fact, one could say that the paradox of being simultaneously absorbed by her subjects and detached from the world they inhabit has, to a large extent, affected her work in other genres such as interiors, figure studies, even, landscapes.

For Clare this paradox is compounded by the fact that in Still Life, the most contrived form of art, she works directly from the object, while her figure painting and landscapes, which might evoke a greater sense of being with people in the real world, are generally done from photographs. But for Clare, as for other painters of Still Life, the real world – the real objects themselves – are, as often as not, apprehended through the medium of art. In response to a question, Clare cites a long list of artists who have influenced her, including Lucien Freud and Rembrandt in her early work, and Gerhard Terborch, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Giorgio Morandi and, closer to home, Adriaan van Zyl, Simon Stone and Andries Gouws in her more recent Still Life paintings. These artists are, of course, very different from each other, and very different from Clare but, at different times, they have expanded both her vision and her ability to translate this vision into paint. At the same time, however, these artists are part of a tradition of Still Life painting that no artist can ignore. Every painter of Still Life subjects is aware not only of the imaginary frame that hovers between themselves and the objects they have chosen to represent but also the fact that countless artists have done the same thing before them. Put another way, whenever artists undertake a Still Life, they engage simultaneously with the particular subject they have chosen and some significant part of the tradition of Still Life painting. In yet another version of paradox, Clare Menck, like every other painter of Still Life subjects of note, routinely challenges this tradition, even while gladly identifying with it.

Where there is a tradition, there are likely to be rules. Or where there is an accepted subject of art, there is likely to be an art school teaching one how to do it. Clare studied Fine Art at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and, as we have seen, she has immersed herself in the tradition of Western painting. Her challenge to this tradition, her search for her own voice within it, involves both the invention of a personal iconography and her willingness to create a space formally for this material to come to life. For the most part, Clare’s challenge to the formal language of Still Life painting is subtle and seductive. But occasionally she confronts the rules of composition and coherence head on. For example, in the series of works featuring a soft blue toy borrowed from her daughter ('Soft toy, face down 2008' - p.14), Clare uses the central vertical axis of the format in a way that was absolutely proscribed at her art schools. With connotations of religious icons, on the one hand, and police mug-shots or other forms of presenting forensic or scientific evidence, on the other, this compositional device is generally held to be too obvious, too blatant for any humanistic reading. Moreover, in the painting that groups this doll with a pair of slippers and a bar of soap ('Soft toy, soap and pair of shoes' 2008 -p.15/48), not only are the three items grouped together on this same vertical axis but they are also arranged with the largest form at the top and the smallest at the bottom, thus quite counter to one’s expectations of reading perspective recession. In another painting of the series, in which the soft toy is exchanged for a bottle ('Ink jar, soap and pair of shoes' 2008 - p.15), this item, the slippers and the soap maintain the same iconic quality that seems by its nature to resist engagement and reading. From a traditionalist’s point of view, obviously, this flouting of the most basic of compositional rules seems willful or even perverse. But for the artist it surely represents a claim to use the materials of art in any way that she wants or, perhaps more accurately, any way that she needs.

Clare challenges the conventions of representation in other works also. Thus in her Still Life compositions with table, nautilus shells and record cover (p.22-23), she represents the shadow of the front right leg of the table as if it was lit from somewhere outside the frame behind and to her right – but she deliberately omits any corresponding shadow cast by the front left leg. There can be no physical explanation for this lack: it is an intervention by the artist herself. Similarly, three variations of the composition with saw, cloth and a piece of lead on an embroidered table-cloth (p.8-10) seem to give as much physical presence to the two-dimensional form of the embroidered pattern and to the shadow of the saw ('Linen gauze, lead, embroidered pattern and saw' 2008 - p.9) as they do to the three-dimensional objects themselves. These decisions suggest the methods of Chardin in playing with the sense of volume of objects that he represented; or of Cezanne in distorting the continuity of planes within his compositions. As with those artists, Clare’s interventions remind the viewer of the controlling hand of the artist that, even in this most material of subjects, is concerned more with the making of a painting than with simply reproducing the real world. This paradox is evident again, albeit in entirely different form, in two paintings that, by their relationship with other works in the series clearly started as the view of a table top ('Abstract (table top) I and II' 2008 - p4), on the one hand, and the point of contact between a table-cloth – actually the precise cloth whose pattern is exaggerated in the works cited above – and the background wall ('Table top (horizon line)' 2008 - p.15), on the other, but which the artist arbitrarily chose to terminate at the point that they worked for her as abstract colour-field compositions. In this decision, obviously, the flat plane of the painting that had been made to yield three dimensions returns to a form of shimmering surface; and paint that had suggested the material form of cloth or of wood, returns to the substance of paint. However, Clare explores the idea of paradox not only in the formal elements of her work but also in their symbolic content.

In earlier works, Clare appears to have challenged the notion of appropriate subject-matter as a means to engage with the tradition of Still Life painting. Thus in a particularly aggressive painting from 2004 (p.34) she placed a ‘knatertang’ (a sheep-castrating instrument) on the central vertical axis of her work in much the same way as she recently presented her child’s soft blue toy. In the context of the tradition of Still Life painting, the subject is shocking, the treatment uncompromising, and the effect surely evokes the idea of trauma, that Roland Barthes interpreted as an event – or an image – that for a time resists reduction into words or, indeed, into the conventions of an established pictorial genre. In a painting of the same time that used an identical cupboard setting (p.33), Clare represented a 'Voortrekker kappie' as an obvious challenge to traditional notions of identity and womanhood, while the iconic form simultaneously questioned the language of Still Life painting. Over the years, Clare has played with difficult, unconventional subjects of Still Life, particularly in the form of rusted metal objects, such as exhaust pipes, piles of nails on a surface, or disused baking tins. These works defy the decorum of traditional Still Life compositions – of kitchen materials or objects representing lifestyles – to focus on the business of representation while searching for a new symbolic language. In a curiously suggestive painting of a rusty section of pipe from 1995-6 (p.43), Clare’s own voice erupted from the panel in the words: “I love pipes”. In this statement, on one level Clare appears simply to justify this particular choice of Still Life subject – but, on another, she is surely opening the way to read the entire symbolic vocabulary of her work in the private world of desire.

In recent Still Life paintings the sense of the violent rupture of trauma is reduced or contained. The rusty saw that appears, in whole or in part, in several compositions suggests disjuncture, of course, but in a subtle, rather than overt way (p.9-10). The old baking tins confront the viewer in their iconic placement but, while as resistant as other forms to literal interpretation, are hardly threatening to the viewer ('Two rusted breadpans on table top' 2008 - backcover). Clare’s new method with Still Life subject-matter is perhaps epitomized by her work of objects half-revealed on a shelf of a bedside cupboard (p.21). The type of cupboard obviously suggests a certain intimacy but this sense is not continued in the objects on display. The more obvious form is an urn-like vase that seems strangely formal, even commemorative; and the shadowed form is a child’s doll from a concentration camp of the South African war that Clare borrowed from a friend: the resonance of this half-hidden figure, with wizened leather flesh parts and, for some viewers at least, echoes of the prostrate form of Lizzie van Zyl who died in the camp at Bloemfontein in 1901 is extraordinary. Through this doll, Clare, of course, evokes such distinct issues as Afrikaner identity and maternity, but she is also concerned to explore how Still Life as a genre can contain as much as reveal such important ideas of both historical and personal significance.

Historically, through different periods and cultures, Still Life as a genre has maintained its position within the hierarchy of art by virtue of its symbolic coherence: whether moralizing, allegorical, symbolic or simply celebratory of the artist’s life-style, Still Life painting worked to the extent that its forms could be both read and interpreted in relation to one another. Since Cezanne and Cubism, of course, the genre has been used also to test and expand the very language of representation but, in this project also, legibility has been vital and symbolic considerations have not been allowed to disrupt formal coherence. However, through much of the last century, the Surrealist tradition has celebrated the esoteric, individualistic reading of both individual forms and their relationship to one another so that conventional rules of interpretation may no longer apply. In this deeply personal realm, of course, there are few guides other than the commentaries of the artists themselves – but, given the nature of the creative process involved, it is entirely possible that the artists themselves are not fully conscious of what is occurring in their practice. Clare Menck certainly does not impose fixed readings on to her work but it is clear from her deep involvement with art history that her project involves not simply a deciphering of symbols in either conventional or esoteric sense but rather the resonance that is established in the relationship of these symbols and the manner in which they are realized.

Some Surrealists, such as Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, worked with clear forms in order to draw on a literary, or quasi-literary vocabulary of symbols. Others, such as Joan Miro and Max Ernst (for example, in the frottages) used the process of defining their forms as part of their symbolic potential. In a similar vein, some of Clare’s painted forms resist identification and thus set up a disturbing tension between the image and the will to interpret it. The soft, blue doll that plays such a prominent role in several of Clare’s works, for example, can only be identified as a child’s toy when it is turned around to reveal the crude delineation of human features on its recto side: in the paintings, and in life, without this information the doll communicates nothing beyond a vague resemblance to a Jean Arp form, be it on the grounds of pure shape. And yet, of course, both the doll itself and its history within the household are entirely familiar to the artist. Similarly, Clare uses a shapeless lump of lead as an element in several of her paintings. It is not actually possible to decipher this form nor, as a consequence, to attribute any meaning to it unless in entirely abstract terms, but the artist might attach any number of possible readings to it. In another series of works, she uses a piece of black sandpaper, that she has torn into a rough square shape, to conceal the cover of a LP record sleeve of Furtwaengler conducting a Beethoven symphony: in the paintings, the sandpaper is not identifiable, its shape is formless, the sleeve is not legible, and neither Furtwaengler nor Beethoven are allowed to appear. In simultaneously revealing and concealing forms, Clare is obviously playing on one level with the idea of the elusiveness of meaning but, on another, she seems to be suggesting that real meaning lies primarily in the act of painting itself.

In Clare’s recent Still Life paintings, forms that are readily decipherable also involve a play on meaning and its absence. In paintings of jugs covered by cloths, for example, the cloth simultaneously confirms that there is likely to be something contained in the jug and prevents one from knowing just what it is. Similarly, cupboard drawers are left open and doors shown ajar: there would seem to be something inside but there is no way of telling what (p.27/33). Other containers, such as hatboxes and jewelry cases are shown simply empty (p18/38). The point here would seem to be that these forms once contained special objects that have now gone. The original function of the boxes, and the fact that they have survived, suggest that they are precious to the artist and that they may act as vehicles of nostalgia and loss. In relation to Clare’s other works, however, these boxes appear to confirm the sense that it is only the surface of things that is knowable; but they complicate this sense by implicit reference to a vanished past. Other works pull between the present and the past. Clare clearly has a penchant for old things not, seemingly, for any sentimental reason but, rather, because they allow her to play with the ideas of memory and loss, presence and absence. Rusty old baking tins and chipped enamel teapots take centre stage in several of her works, demanding attention both to their form and the possibility of meaning within it (backcover/p.32). Like a battlefield that has absorbed the blood of those killed on it, these insignificant domestic objects contain and conceal their histories as much as any physical substance. In the reclusive space of a studio, it seems, these little histories can loom very large.

Part of Clare’s challenge to the genre of Still Life is to focus on unfamiliar material. Whereas many artists throughout history have deliberately ‘looked at the over-looked’, to paraphrase the title of Norman Bryson’s book on Still Life, Clare has made it her project to collect used and discarded objects into her work: several of her paintings feature piles of used tea-bags that, once dried, can be soaked in paraffin, apparently, and re-used as fire-lighters (p.26-27). Such objects lie well beyond the accepted material of Still Life and they may be seen to work with Clare’s formal strategies as an ongoing interrogation of the genre. But, at the same time, most of these discarded, taken-for-granted objects are to be found in the domestic realm - private, unimpressive and inarticulate. Dried tea-bags, rusty baking tins, chipped enamel teapots, child’s toys, and other forms, circle around the idea of life in the home, to a greater or lesser extent cut off from the outside world. Their ambiguity, their paradox, however, lies in the fact that, apparently exhausted of use and significance, they have become meaningful surfaces for art.

Perhaps unsurprisingly since Clare’s chief concern seems to be to defy any intellectual reading of Still Life objects, many of her paintings seem to engage directly with communication through sensory means, notably touch and sight. In the context of a silent, cloistered studio, the discourse of Still Life is dismembered in terms of both form and iconography. The rules of composition, even of logic, are challenged; and the objects are selected for inclusion on the basis of their very lack of resonance. To lie outside, or to be removed from the discourse of a genre is, in a sense, to be rendered silent. Clare extends this preference for the sensory, as opposed to the significant aspect of objects, by deliberately choosing forms that seem to appeal to the sense of touch. Soft, silky materials, silk slippers, rough, rusty metals, soaps of different kinds, and towels all suggest the idea of touch, not the active, tactile sense of touching but, rather, the more passive sense of being touched, of being grazed or caressed. This non-verbal, inarticulate form of communication obviously adds resonance to the quality of silence in the studio.

The other sense that is paramount in the studio is, of course, sight. We have seen Clare terminating projected Still Life compositions at the point she felt they were complete as paintings thereby sacrificing representation to the interests of pure visual form (p.15). Tabletops and wall surfaces lose their perspective relationships and revert to the worked surface of the panel. Elsewhere Clare works in series, offering seemingly identical views of the same objects, in the same or different sizes. In Monet’s great series, of Haystacks and the like, the artist distinguished one painting from another by changes in light in the course of a day. But Clare appears to invite close scrutiny of her work not to reveal difference but sameness, invoking the state that Elias Canetti described as the seduction in reducing “everything to the simplest form of repetition”. Resistance to a literal interpretation here, needless to say, finds echoes in other of Clare’s strategies to refuse penetration of the panel as either an illusion or text. Instead, in this device and others, Clare focuses attention on the surface of the panel and the manual practice of painting. Drawing attention to the physical act of painting, Clare conjures up the sense of a meditative state, focused entirely on the surface of the panel. The silent, cloistered space of the studio, removed from the world, provides appropriate accommodation for this profound and paradoxical investigation into the materials of art.

Prof. Michael Godby October 2008

Prof. Michael Godby recently curated, with accompanying catalogue, the exhibition Is There Still Life? Continuity and change in South African Still Life Painting at Iziko: The Michaelis Collection, Cape Town. He is Professor of History of Art at the University of Cape Town.

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