Text by Sara Hughes
Catalogue text for solo show at First Site, Colchester, by Sara Hughes – Tate St.Ives
Home Truths and the Secret Life of the Object
Through paintings, projections and photo-stencil prints, the work of Cassie Howard playfully traverses the history of the painted object within the genre of domestic interiors. Her cross-temporal exploration not only disrupts cultural references and art-historic narratives, but probes at our very perception of the material world as we negotiate the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
In Howard’s ongoing Conversations series of one-to-one chair paintings, the artist extrapolates her ‘models’ from their original period setting to stage – in flat acrylic – new encounters between these archetypal furniture designs. The dialogues, which formerly took place within the indefinable white void of her polished gesso tableaux, have, for the show at Firstsite, now moved to the hushed confines of ‘lime-lit’ black paper. In the absence of a human sitter, and divorced from the cultural and material contexts which shaped them, these objects most intimately associated with the body are left to play out their own social dramas, where form invokes gender and/or age, position alludes to proposition, proximity relays unease and size denotes power.
Whilst there is a compelling revelation in the possibility of life beyond inanimate matter, such a sudden anthropomorphic shift oddly resigns the viewer, positioned front of stage, to self-conscious voyeur. Howard openly borrows technical devises and inconsistencies from a range of art-historic sources to effect these psychological games: heightened chiaroscuro; the multi-perspectival cubist still-life study or the misfit furnishings poorly over-painted in her favourite Johann Zoffany room-interior, have inspired subtle formal tensions.
The role of the painted object in interior and still-life genre painting across Europe has been considered by the art establishment for several centuries, following the rise and resonance of its popularity in seventeenth century Holland. Secular encoding, that is to say the specific symbolism conveyed in such works, varied from period and context, but recent critical debate has highlighted the more universal ‘objecthood’ of these interrelated domestic items.
In painting, the metaphysical potential of the object in space was perhaps most notably connected with Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) in his still-life series of the 1940s and 50s. Employing a distinct yet quotidian set of vases, bottles, pots and cups, Morandi sought to explore a deeper meaning from their inter-relationship. The psychological transformation of his select tableware through obsessive study and rearrangement, was further evaluated by the British artist collaborative Theatre of Mistakes in the 1970s with Homage to Morandi 1979. Throughout their performance piece the anthropomorphosis of their still-life of wardrobes, chairs and suitcases, was completed by gradually replacing the objects with themselves. Interestingly, viewing Morandi’s complete series alludes to stills from an on-going performance.
This presentation of Howard’s conversational vignettes, adds to their theatricality and her frieze of singular chair ‘portraits’, again devoid of setting and sitter, thus becomes a cast of characters, posing for the programme. Appearing around the reign of Henry VIII, the chair as a household chattel, has been the ever present prop (or now, cast ‘extra’) of interior genre painting. Seeing Howard’s cameos brings to mind how often artists have used chairs for orchestrating or emphasising the pictorial and dramatic dynamic of their peopled compositions; the set of the moral allegory exemplified by Frans Hals in 1600s Holland, later in Britain by Hogarth in the 1700s and Augustus Egg in the 1800s or for the pinnacle of social intercourse, the ‘conversation-piece’ family portrait resurrected by Joseph Wright of Derby, again in the late eighteenth century. Howard draws on these implicit themes through her sparse confrontations and the furniture – no longer subordinate to human activities – finally gets the curtain call, challenging the viewer that its presence, however incongruous when returned to a contemporary or future environment, will outlive the fallibilities of the human design; it is the document of civilised evolution, the re-lay of cultural memory.
Such issues of the passing of time and the fading of cultural memory beyond the materiality of her chairs are embodied in enigmatic photo-stencils the artist makes of her subjects onto non-colourfast sugar paper. In the series History Chairs, recently shown at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, the instability of this light-sensitive support meant the images subtly faded away during the course of their exposure on exhibition. In a site specific work in the grounds of the Minories, the artist applies this technique to designs for classical figurines which will line the sculpture alcoves of its nineteenth century folly.
A similar kind of intangibility exists in her light-projected, (rather than actual), room installations that also alert the senses to an imagined rather than real experience – which of course genre painting is; in fact, Jan Vermeer famously constructed his coolly-lit interiors from the projection of a camera obscura. So, it is not solely the medium that engenders a disquietening atmosphere within Howard’s vacant domestic scenes.
On entering the gallery space, the viewer actively becomes part of, for example, a quintessential English country-style sitting room. Aside from its temporal dislocation, ostensibly this private space, with roaring fire and fatly upholstered settees, should be the epitome of comfort and security– for those who can tolerate all that post-war chintz. As the nostalgia fades, it becomes apparent in the absence of personal affects, that the space is de-personalised, a show-home maybe or a stereotype of designer styling. As the viewer is drawn into a direct relationship with the components of this uncanny assemblage, the subtle disproportions of the room confirm the projected images are a stage-set of props and models; with Howard’s random mix of styles, nothing, in any frame of reference, is for real.
However, then the artist playfully acknowledges that no element was ever intended to be and gleefully transports her elected protagonists (the viewer) directly to the site of her own imagination. By unexpectedly reducing them to one twelfth of their size in a room bedecked with dolls house furniture, the disorientating spell of dysmorphia, as experienced by Alice shrinking into Wonderland, becomes nightmarishly true. Dolls houses and their furnishings, usually 1:12 in size, act purely as ciphers for make-believe and cannot exist in real time and space. As if to test this theory, Howard previously made an exact scaled-up model of a dolls house chair in plywood that full size fails to conform even to the basic principles of human size and shape. It is, with its comical proportions, rather more at home in the realm of a Goldilocks and the three bears pantomime. Perhaps, like the projected objects within the gallery space, these otherworldly charms are disturbingly subsumed by its nascent sense of ‘self’.
Oscillating between fantasy and reality, Howard’s work prompts the viewer to reconsider how we assess our immediate environment and the meaning we attach to everyday objects as we construct our realities. In drawing from the multiple genres of interior scenes and still-life, she questions and subverts not only the artifice of painting, but the notion of ‘interiority’, as a cerebral journey departed from domestic familiarity. Howard highlights the authority of her chosen seat motifs to signify power relationships in public and private life (specific to its context), whilst recognising its superior, enduring role in carrying forward cultural memory.
Sara Hughes is a curator at Tate St Ives