Forget about the allegories and symbolism of 17th century Dutch still life painting or the formalism and intimacy of Giorgio Morandi’s art. Apart from his choice of subject, Damien Kurth’s paintings have very little in common with familiar narratives of still life painting. Precedents for his work are more immediately found in conceptual art or the installations of British artists like Mike Nelson. (Reassembling the desk and items from his studio into a gallery, Nelson’sThe Black Barbacue, San Antonio, August 1961, directed attention, not so much to the mundane objects that represented the routine of his life, but reflection upon the objects that make up the daily encounters of all our lives.)
The viewer’s active engagement with, and experience of, Kurth’s paintings is central to his work, evident in images that purposefully connect the reality of the viewer’s space with the deceptions of space on the painted surface of the picture plane. Kurth bridges the divide between viewer and painting by his placement of objects. For example, locating containers and vessels close to the edge of shelves that run parallel to the borders of a painting.
In Western art such spatial relationships have their origins in High Renaissance Mannerism and the art of Caravaggio (for example; Still Life, 1599). Yet, there is a wilfulness about Kurth’s images that also seems entirely disconnected from Mannerist traditions. Kurth refuses to let the viewer off easily with any specific or conclusive point of reference. There is an awareness that the artist is centred upon a critique of the very nature of painting, its visual deceptions and its history. The depiction of torn and crossed masking tape in many of these works initially appears to divert attention to something more purely formalist – the crosses can be seen as a gesture towards geometric abstraction in the 20th century and the art of Kasimir Malevich.
Yet, Kurth’s paintings also seem too self-conscious to resolve themselves in the aesthetic harmonies of Suprematism or Constructivism. Rather, they appear focussed upon the promise of such possibilities. The stillness and muted conversations that almost take place are not about to give anything away. If there are certainties up for discussion in these works, they reside in the questions that they pose and seek to answer about our relationship with painting and its possibilities in the 21st century. How is painting legitimate and relevant in a digital age burdened by images?
Kurth’s still life subjects direct our attention to painting as a particular way of thinking about and making works of art to represent an idea. Painting’s materials and processes, its genealogy and an awareness of its belonging to a history of art, separate painting from other methods and ideologies of art practices, and continue to sustain its longevity today. Indeed, there is an engaging open-ended narrative embedded in Kurth’s paintings – these are objects that act as an ‘aggregate of images … part and parcel of reality.’
Essay by Dr. Warren Feeney
Born: 1972, Stratford
Education: Master of Fine Arts, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland; Bachelor of Fine Arts, Otago Polytechnic
Awards/Distinctions: Adam Portraiture Awards – Finalist (2002, 2000); Otago Polytechnic Painting Award (1997); Cleveland Art Awards – Highly Commended, Open Section (1997); Derivan Painting Award, Otago Polytechnic (1996)
Public Exhibitions: Spun, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Auckland (2013); About Face: aspects of portraiture, Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland (2011); Adam Portraiture Awards, The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington (2002, 2000); Still Life, Arts Post, Hamilton (2000); Hoochy Koochy, Arts Post, Hamilton (1999); Cleveland Art Awards, Dunedin Town Hall (1997)
Articles: ‘On the long and winding road’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Apr 2015; ‘Samples offer easy peek’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jun 2013; ‘The real thing’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Apr 2012