TIM O'KANE


Still Life

Four years ago I began a concerted effort to include still-life as one of my major subject areas. The work in this collection is from a continuing series I call “The Observed World of a Right-handed Painter”. “Right-handed” refers to the light source. Right-handed painters prefer to work with their light from the left so they are not painting in the shadow of their hand. As to subject matter, everything is fair game.

A favorite quote of mine came from the Russian director Andrei Tarkowsky. He said,  “Time cannot vanish without trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time. In a sense the past is far more real or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

Within the definition of “Still-Life” is the quality of stabilizing that, which is ever moving and becoming our past. The objects are collected and arranged, illuminated by the light of the studio window, the drawing is made, the colors gradually applied, tonalities adjusted toward warmth or coolness, details articulated, many seen only after extended observation. Days go by, weeks sometimes before it is done. In that time, it has become both an illusion and an actual thing, an object – both a recollection and an experience in the present.

I began painting the still-life twenty-five years into my career. I had previously given most of my attentions to the figure. It was 1990 that I did my first still-life, setting up simple domestic objects on my kitchen table and begging everyone in my family not to touch them. They were not pleased that my obsession had escaped the studio. That very first time I went for the minimalist approach, and have stayed with it ever since.

I found this simplicity partnered perfectly with the directness of the observation. The process was liberating, even meditative. In creating compositional designs with the objects and light, I discovered a compelling balance between the geometric abstraction and the realistic illusion. I had always orchestrated complex arrangements with my figurative work, not unlike a film director. I realized that still-life had played some essential role in this work. Through my large, cinematic figurative works, I had already realized the potential of ordinary objects; the enigmatic qualities of existence contained in the mundane. This is what Cezanne and Morandi had grappled with. This is what brings such an air of dignity to their simple subjects, the largeness we respond to in their still-lifes.

The tradition of still-life is almost as old as the art of painting itself. The factors that artists manage in working with still-life are the fundamental elements of painting – shape, texture, color, spatial reference, and the sensuality of surface. The object observed, closely scrutinized in the clarity of daylight becomes the painter’s attachment with the real world. It will always be considered a traditional approach to making art, but realism can take place in respect of modernity. It does not have to be in opposition to it. Tradition can be retained while still speaking to our time, our current experience.
I believe the art of still-life is still as viable as ever. It affords the artist an endless world of possibilities for distilling a contemplative order from the noisy chaos of the world. One intention with these paintings is to put the brakes on the mad pace of things today.