The late, great art critic and novelist John Berger said “the relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
“The Conceptual Still Life: New Work by Denise Prince,” at Austin’s Ivester Contemporary, plays on this idea. Recognized for her glossy color photos using the visual language of fashion and advertising, Prince addresses concepts around femininity.
Surprisingly, the majority of her latest images relinquish the female figure, opting for clues to domesticity and the so-called feminine domain of entertaining. Prince does so by enlisting the ultimate art historical occasion for staging, the still life.
Surfaces spill with floral arrangements and food. The aptly titled, “Conceptual Still Life-Pink” (2021) embraces every shade of rose, fuchsia, blush and berry. Peony sweet pea, and dahlia blossoms burst from a silver compote, powdered cookies sit on a tray, while ripe fruits both randomly and strategically sit below. Prince’s use of two subtly different shades of pink for the surface and the background produces an ambiguous space in which items float against two intense color fields. Like an extreme version of Paul Cézanne’s shifting perspective, Prince’s spatial tinkerings might conjure the tipped table in “The Basket of Apples” (1893), at least for this art historian.
Even more readily applicable might be Baroque still life iconography.
“As it relates to historical still life in which certain items are symbolic,” Prince says in an email reply to queries. “My piece ‘The Souls of Man’ uses cherries (decidedly maraschino, not to mention the Nipples of Saint Agatha pastries) in a youth-skewered scheme.”
Beyond its breast shaped cakes, “The Souls of Man” (2021) seduces the eye with a confectionary spread of candy apples, nougaty divinity, and a Kool-Aid looking drink —pretty much an artificial coloring lover’s dream.
More mid-twentieth, than seventeenth century, Prince’s aesthetic recalls magazine advertising or cookbook illustration where the camera zooms in to capture two ever-so-perfect hands adorned with one ever-so-sweet corsage of carnations, placing a vintage bowl down on the desert table.
“I have an appreciation for 1960s and earlier cookbook imagery as well as a love of formality and the efforts at earlier periods with the ways, habits and styles of decoration,” Prince says. “Corsages for example. I’ve mixed the ridiculous with the historically ‘elegant’ as well as unexpected store bought or traditionally homemade sweets with incongruous and even displeasing items.”
A few pictures slip in such “displeasing” items like the tray of sea urchins positioned amongst more fruits, flowers and candies, in “Conceptual Still Life with Scarlet Ibis” (2021). Of the addition of a standing bird to the table, Prince admits that this is the only work in which some manipulation occurred as the artist tells me “the scarlet ibis didn’t arrive on time to be arranged on site.” Heavy on design, this is the largest of the digital photo prints (40” x 60”), as well as the most jam-packed with shiny serving dishes and gaudy excess. She says it’s a reference to Georg Flegel’s “Still Life with Parrot” (c. 1630).
Prince is invested in the concept of fantasy, and how I see it, what fantasies bring to the act of self-identification and the interpretation of images.
“I guess I’m suggesting that we play with pretends extensively and that new fantasies would, or will, increasingly reflect that,” she says. “And it is true that fantasy organizes our everyday reality and tells us who we are. It’s not the foremost thing I’m speaking of but again, I do love making the read of the work part of the subject.”
This brings us back to Berger who made clear in seminal, and revolutionary, 1972 book “Ways of Seeing” that each of us brings a wide array of assumptions to the practice of interpreting that which is presented as art. The act of seeing is subjective and shaped by culture and experience. Of the female experience Berger wrote “women constantly meet glances which act like mirrors reminding them of how they look or how they should look. Behind every glance there is judgment.”
It’s possible by bending expectations in her highly staged scenes, Prince renegotiates how we judge what we see.
“The Conceptual Still Life: New Work by Denise Prince” is on view through Oct. 23 at Ivester Contemporary. ivestercontemporary.com