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Installation view, Still Life

Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats once proposed that the element of water had so inflected the Irish soul, that, referring to images of the dead, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images…”. This idea of evoking the past via reflection of the presenthung in my mind on seeing Still Life, curated by Polly Staple at Lismore Castle Arts, a gallery set in an historic castle in County Cork, Ireland. The show is graceful and light in unfolding; four still-lifes by Gillian Carnegie, two photographs by Anne Collier, a large-scale piece made from multiple postcards of a birch wood by Sherrie Levine. Flanking this winter garden are works by Seth Price and Mark Leckey, which more directly investigate the status of images as objects, along with an offsite project by Richard Wright, that references the Pugin wallpaper found in the castle interior.

Questions of representation and replication are paramount throughout the show. Using still life as a central theme highlights the genre’s low esteem, now commonly associated with feminine or decorative arts—which is particularly relevant in the context of the castle, a repository of years’ worth of aesthetic taste. This prominence and juxtaposition with an earlier way of interacting with painting highlights the variety of hats representational work may wear now, when painting can be read semiotically, formally or as object rather than figuration. Carnegie’s decision to make her still life out of dead flowers suggests both a continuation of the genre and a reflection of its death in a social sense—the market and taste for still-lifes has, of course, dried up, in a Western les statues meurent aussi . Two of her paintings, ‘Popul Vuh’, 2003, and ‘Fleurs de Huile’,2001, in which the paint is built upon itself to form ridges of texture, are particularly enthralling. Collier’s fantastic ‘Open Book #4 (Pink Floyd)’ and ‘Open Book #3 (Island Wilderness)’, both 2010, part of a larger series, depict the artist’s hands holding open a book, photographed from above, to show images of the starry night sky and the sea, respectively. The works suggest the absurdity of trying to bracket off the limitless—a patheticness underscored by the original photographs’ kitschy, faded 1970s colour—and even the sheer folly of representation in a world of replication. Are these works still allegoric, one bouquet representing all bouquets, and springtime or winter, and youth or death? Collier’s truncated mise en abyme wards against this chain of allusions, grounding it in its reference to the artist, whose place one occupies as one looks at the photographs (as objects). Setting Levine’s work—an installation of found postcards, each showing the same picture plane of a leafy wood—opposite Collier’s and Carnegie’s makes for an intergenerational conversation among the artists, but her work falls strangely flat here. The postcard’s mass-market origins seems to play against any critique that the logic of the series might offer, and their generous mounting and light wood framing domesticates the unreality of repetition, making it plaintive rather than critical.

These three works are hung in a triangular configuration in the main space, and it is hard not to read them as forming a nexus to which the men—Leckey, Price and Wright—are satellites, and indeed their work feels of a different temperature: as cool and contemporary as the women’s works are engaged with the past. The other world evoked by Leckey’s ‘Made in ’Eaven’, 2004, again mesmerizes, suggesting anon-site of contemporary presentation that would challenge Yeats’ spiritualist belief that one could see, in the ‘still-water’ minds of his countrymen, the past—or anything, for that matter. There is no better depiction of Koons’ troubling affectlessness than the woozy emptiness of this digital version of his bunny, which simply and endlessly reflects the world around it.

Adrift in this repurposed wing of the castle, the weirdness of contemporary art makes itself felt—its determinate ahistoricality, its need to replicate rather than progress, and appropriate rather than depict. This tension is interior to many of these works— Collier’s, Leckey’s, Levine’s—and, though it might have been pushed, it feels right to abut the castle’s (literally) rock-solid evidence of historical primogeniture with contemporary uncertainty about how to move forward.

Melissa Gronlund is managing editor of Afterall