15
Jun
11

Exhibition: ‘Robyn Stacey: Tall Tales and True’ at Stills Gallery, Paddington, Sydney

Exhibition dates: 18th May – 25th June 2011

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Many thankx to Jessica Howard for her help and to Stills Gallery and Peter Timms for allowing me to publish the text and the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Ozymandias

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I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
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Percy Bysshe Shelley 1818

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Robyn Stacey
Come unto me
2011
84 x 120cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Robyn Stacey
Help yourself
2011
90 x 120cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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“Working extensively with historic collections since 2000, Robyn Stacey’s early projects dealt with Australian flora and fauna, exploring the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and the Macleay collection at the University of Sydney. Over the last three years she has worked closely the NSW Historic Houses Trust to produce a series of artworks and a book focusing on three of their properties, Elizabeth Bay House, Vaucluse House, and Rouse Hill estate as well as the Caroline Simpson Research Collection and Library. In these works Stacey reveals her fascination with the still life tradition but also speaks about the Australian notion of home and what it means to our national psyche.

Stacey’s transformation of these historic spaces and objects allows us not only to glance into earlier worlds but also to consider hierarchies of taste, culture and knowledge. By using the still life to re-work and re-view the Trust’s collection she aims to deconstruct the traditional museum display. The objects are returned to an approximate albeit fictional reality, creating a sense that the settings have been left only momentarily and that people are never far away.

In this latest exhibition Stacey looks at the traces of inhabitation. Chatelaine for example, features a sumptuous collection of objects including Wisteria spilling out of an ornate vase on top of a beautifully carved side table. The objects are from the collection of Vaucluse House having belonged to its inhabitant Sarah Wentworth. Her convict past prevented easy entry into high society at the time. In this accumulation of tasteful things we see evidence of Sarah Wentworth’s attempts to assert her social position within a society that spurned her. In other works, which draw from the collection at Rouse Hill estate we bear witness to the varying fortunes of the Rouse family.

As well as being a reflection upon the nature and minutiae of nineteenth century domesticity these still lives also reflect our colonial history; the desire for betterment and the need to re-create what has been left behind through the transport of taste and knowledge systems.”

Text from the Stills Gallery website

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Robyn Stacey
Presentation (Apple)
2011
90 x 74cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Robyn Stacey
Presentation (Pear)
2011
90 x 74cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Playing a double game

We all have a penchant for hidden essences. They spur our desires. Sometimes, of course, a thing is just a thing: a cup merely a convenient way of getting coffee to our mouths; a car no more than a machine to get around in. Often, however, (surprisingly often in fact) we choose to invest such apparently lifeless objects with little souls, or what the psychologist Paul Bloom calls ‘realities that are not present to the senses’. Almost everything, it seems, is capable of leading a double life.

And where better to seek out these double lives than in the historic house museum? Here the Regency candlesticks, the ormolu clocks, even the gardening tools and saucepans, come already imbued with a special significance, for here the domestic has been raised to the level of theatre.

The choices Robyn Stacey has made from the wealth of objects at Elizabeth Bay House, Vaucluse House and Rouse Hill Estate are by no means the obvious ones. They are not necessarily things of high status or great beauty. She is equally attracted to the rusted sickle, the well-thumbed book, the peeling painting and the old postcard: everyday things that bear the traces of long usage. Through judicious juxtaposition, dramatic lighting, and the addition of her own evocative flourishes, she dramatises these humble items, teasing out their souls and revealing their double lives.

What Robyn is doing is transforming inanimate objects into surrogate people. In the absence of their corporeal selves, those who made their lives in these houses are reborn through what they owned, loved, used and made. And, in the process, their stories are expanded into the realm of cultural history.

Chatelaine, for example, enlists flowers, a silk shawl, a richly decorated Staffordshire jar and the titular chatelaine itself (a sort of female version of the Swiss army knife) to reconstruct nineteenth-century ideals of femininity. Only when we discover that it is intended, in part, as a homage to Sarah Wentworth, the mistress of Vaucluse House, does its gentle irony morph into poignant masquerade. For, despite being married to one of early Sydney’s richest and most powerful men, Sarah’s impoverished and morally compromised background led to her rejection by polite society. So these outwardly vivacious mementos also serve as emblems of one woman’s tragedy and, by extension, the tragedy of many women’s lives at the time.

What could be more richly evocative than the cornucopia of flowers, fruits, grains and agricultural implements assembled for Rouse and the Cumberland Plain? What, indeed, could be more shamelessly calculated to provoke astonishment? This virtuosic picture is at once a homage to and a respectful parody of the European still-life tradition. Ostensibly it sets out, in almost forensic detail, what was once grown in the gardens and fields around Rouse Hill House, every leaf and petal historically accurate as to species and type. In that sense, it can be appreciated as an authentic record of nineteenth-century colonial gardening and agriculture. But of course it is much more than that.

We don’t have to be au fait with seventeenth-century Dutch iconography to be able to tease out the allusions in those overturned baskets, those pomegranates spilling their seeds, those provocative little asparagus spears, the decaying timber and the butterflies, nor to be touched by the pathos of that hand-made house-brick in the foreground, impressed with a heart. These symbolic clues qualify and complicate our initial response of unguarded optimism. Here and there, melancholy and loss begin to intrude. And the longer we look, the more enveloped we become by a stifling air of artificiality, as if everything has been stilled and embalmed. Initial delight slowly morphs into an eerie silence. It is in their delicate balance of abundance and ruin that all these photographs find their moral core. They are awe-inspiring, in the eighteenth-century meaning of the term.

This is true even of apparently simple works such as, for example, Presentation (Pear). While its reticence seems a world away from the fecundity of Rouse and the Cumberland Plain or Chatelaine, the underlying themes correspond. In fact, Presentation (Pear) is a composition of such elegant straightforwardness that we might suspect a trap. And indeed we might be right.

On a substantial marble pedestal sits, somewhat incongruously, a ripe pear with a fly on it. A butterfly has come to rest nearby. There are just these four individual components, each with its own tale to tell. Combined, however, into a Joseph-Cornell-like assemblage, they assume an almost mythical dimension. The massive plinth, its pomposity worthy of an Ozymandias, can be seen as representing the vanity of human ambition. The pear has long been a symbol of birth and fecundity, the fly represents decay, and the butterfly the brevity of life. Yet such pat interpretations will probably strike a modern sensibility as overdetermined or too reductive. These days we are not inclined to take this sort of thing too seriously, and the very transparency of the symbolism in Presentation (Pear) is perhaps a warning that we should not. There is a good deal of self-referentiality here. The symbols keep turning in on themselves.

What these photographs are, in fact, inviting us to do is to momentarily assume a double life, to surrender to the romantic perceptions of past generations without abandoning our modern scepticism, to experience a pre-scientific world through a post-scientific consciousness so as to understand not just the material world of past generations but also to enter into their way of thinking. As in the cinema (and these photographs are nothing if not cinematic) we are being invited to suspend our disbelief and imagine ourselves in another time, not for nostalgia’s sake, but for the opposite – to strip away sentiment and to see ourselves more clearly.

Thus, beneath their apparent sumptuousness, Robyn’s artfully contrived tableaux are playing a crafty double game of de-familiarisation.

Peter Timms

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Robyn Stacey
Early morning Rouse
2010
110 x 75.6cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Robyn Stacey
Chatelaine
2010
110 x 82.5cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Robyn Stacey
The Royal Guard
2011
90 x 76cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Robyn Stacey
Venetian Beauty
2011
120 x 107.7cm
type C print
edition of 5 + 2/3 AP

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Stills Gallery
36 Gosbell Street
Paddington NSW 2021
Australia
T: 61 2 9331 7775

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 11.00 am – 6.00 pm

Stills Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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