John Armstrong

Moira Clark
"Place Setting," Tableau Vivant, Toronto

Two years ago, Moira Clark gave me a copy of American food critic and author M. F. K. Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets, a book first published in 1949. Clark explained that although the book contained some very fine recipes, most of the book describes the author’s discovery of these recipes and how they intersected with – in some ways even determined – events in her life. Fisher favours simple and often traditional recipes in which a few elements are combined to preserve as well as enhance the flavour, texture, and even history, of each food. She sees dining as a kind of existential barometer of one’s life: there are meals appropriate for solitude, for celebration, for sharing with a friend or a lover, for eating in New York or in Provence. A meal’s trajectory begins early in the day with the      careful selection of available foods; shopping is the not merely purchasing an existing recipe’s list of ingredients, but is rather the search for a contingent definition of one’s circumstances and desires all to be consummated by the preparation and eventual consumption of a perfectly, personally correlative meal.

Still-life painting has long been associated with food preparation and presentation. Historically, European artists have depicted imported, costly foodstuffs and elegant vessels as well as work-a-day victuals and crockery of decidedly humble origin. Whether we are looking at the gleaming crystal and lemon twists of the seventeenth-   century Dutch artist J. D. de Heem or at a jar of home-canned apricots by the eighteenth-century French artist  J. B. S. Chardin, we contemplate the delectation of food, tempered as this might be by the occasional (often romanticized) gesture towards a particular class. The polarity between exotic and everyday culinary motifs continued through nineteenth- and twentieth-century European still-life painting, as artists such as Paul Cézanne, Giorgio Morandi and Henri Matisse all sought to downplay it as the representation of an artfully arranged table or sideboard setting. Instead they chose to emphasize the still life as a rhythmically decorative arrangement of culinary items (apples, bottles and North African textiles respectively) that foreground the individual artist’s interest in painting’s formal elements. This aestheticizing of the culinary offers a rich sense of the modern artist’s dedication to translating visual sources into a highly personal artistic language – it is hard to imagine eating one of Cézanne’s apples, pouring wine from Morandi’s bottles, or spreading one of Matisse’s textiles over a table.

Moira Clark’s still-life paintings dedicate themselves to applying the heightened colour and patterning characteristic of European modernist still-life traditions to a more pragmatic sensibility and interest in the unembellished recounting of experience – such as one finds in M. F. K. Fisher’s writings. Like Fisher’s search for the appropriate local foodstuffs with which to approach a given recipe, Clark either sorts through thrift shops to find the dishes she uses in her paintings or she uses crockery she finds immediately at hand. Typically, these are pitchers, bowls, plates, vases, or tea cups and saucers long separated from the sets they once belonged to. When Clark paints flowers, she relies on the faded and stylized illustrations found in 1960s horticultural magazines, which she also finds in flea markets.

Two recurring types of dishes in Clark’s paintings, English white ironstone and generic pressed glass, are indicative of the sort of motif the artist chooses. Both the ironstone and the glassware are of uniform colour and sturdy design, with a relatively unornamented sculptural simplicity. The English ironstone is an inexpensive (even to this day), heavy porcelain dating from the late 1900s that has been ubiquitous in rural North America throughout most of this century. It is modestly decorated with embossed patterns based on shells and floral or other natural motifs: a wheat pattern was particularly popular. The glassware is of Canadian origin, dating from the 1950s and 60s; it is heavy and intended for rough-and-tumble service in restaurants.

Clark’s paintings characteristically abstract and simplify one or several of her dishware motifs, and render them in either a modest or monumental scale. The ironstone crockery is painted in layers of warm and cool off-whites; these closely valued, bleached tones, in combination with a semi-opaque scumbling of the paint, lend the china a flickering, pearlescent quality. The domestic objects are often pictured obliquely, seen from above and tipping forward, affording a view into their interiors. Clark distinguishes the interior and exterior of her vessels by a subtle shift in the colour temperature rather than by using pronounced illumination, and very seldom do her objects ever cast a shadow. In several recent paintings, she further undermines the distinction between inside and outside by underpainting the entire object in a strong colour which appears through the transparency of her overpainting: a flattened two-dimensional quality gently qualifies the illusionistic three-dimensional rendering.

The crockery’s reduced and ambiguous forms are further heightened by the dizzying patterns and saturated colours of Clark’s grounds. She models the grounds on the woven patterning of chair caning, perhaps making a playful reference to Pablo Picasso’s hallmark Cubist painting of 1912, Still Life with Chair Caning. In this artwork, Picasso used an actual oil cloth print of a caning motif as a collage element. Like Picasso, Clark treats the caning motif as though it were glued to the surface of the canvas; but unlike Picasso, she realizes each stitch of the caning as an individual brushstroke, creating a link between the handwoven caning and the physical act of painting it. Clark reduces the crockery’s design to the level of nuance, whereas her painted caning interweaves pronounced colour juxtapositions to give the ground great prominence – reversing the usual figure ground relationship found in painting.

Clark’s interest in isolating and even overwhelming her carefully chosen crockery makes familiar domestic objects seem strange. When scaled up to near gigantic proportions, something like a simple serving dish acquires new meanings: it may be a bed pan, or a baptismal fount, or all of these things at once. Her seasoned dishware all appears to have undergone a bleaching evocative of the haziness of recollection. But there is no nostalgia here; rather, the dishes seem to be rudely unsettled, diminished by the optical theatrics of grounds that graphically spell out how they have been painted. In these still lifes, we aren’t presented with any prepared food, or even an           illusionistic place setting. What we do see is a confidently set-out painterly list of ingredients suggesting how tradition, whether culinary or artistic, may be reconciled with the material things we are surrounded by through choice, happenstance or attrition.

Catalogue essay, Tableau Vivant, 1999