The Fall (Incendiary Detritus), 2000 signed and dated 'Storrier / 2000' lower right acrylic on canvas 183.0 x 304.8cm (72 1/16 x 120in).
PROVENANCE Private collection, New South Wales
EXHIBITED Tim Storrier, Still Life, Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 21 September 14 October 2000, (illus. invite) Tim Storrier, Metro 5 Gallery, Melbourne, 10 October 4 November 2001
LITERATURE Catharine Lumby, Tim Storrier: The Art of the Outsider, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, pl. 152, p. 198-199 (illus. and dustjacket) Michael Reid, 'Outsider returns, bigger than ever', The Weekend Australian, 14-15 October 2000, p.31 (illus. detail) Jeff Makin, 'No challenge so deep', The Herald Sun, Melbourne, 15 October 2001, p. 82 (illus.) Ashley Crawford, 'Storrier fires up landscape of imagination', The Age, Melbourne, 25 October 2001, p. 6
If The Fall (Incendiary Detritus), painted at the dawn of a new millenium, is at all representative of the artist's state of mind, Tim Storrier has a less than utopian vision of the future. A painting which reprises themes Storrier has worked with for almost two decades now, The Fall is also a bleak refinement of his fascination with fission, sacrifice, loss, waste, and termination.
A black snake slides across barren ground strewn with what might be offerings or simple detritus, abandoned in the wake of some unspecified disaster. Fire burns in the mid-ground - but it's not the warming, nostalgic blaze familiar from Storrier's outback campfire images. This fire has echoes of the funeral pyre. It burns in a strange, extraterrestrial landscape where black birds wheel in an unnaturally blue sky and a haze of polluted smoke clouds the background. The Fall is less landscape than still life. Indeed, it's a painting which makes explicit the extent to which the still life genre has influenced Storrier's 'landscapes' more directly than the history of landscape painting itself.
A faintly disreputable aura has often hung around the still life because of the self-conscious design which is so often implied by such works and the facility with trompe l'oeil which marks the genre's best practitioners. It's a tradition associated with ultra-illusionistic and often decadent periods in art history. And, yet, as a host of painters, from the eighteenth-century French painter Chardin to the 1960's American pop artist Wayne Theibaud, have demonstrated, it's equally a genre with enormous symbolic potential. The still life, at its best, is a mode which renews our capacity to see apparently banal, everyday objects. The role of the still life in Storrier's oeuvre became explicit in the mid-1980s following a trip to Egypt to paint a series of commissioned images. In an exhibition titled Burning Of The Gifts, Storrier showed a work with the same title which depicted a pyre of melons, eels, snakes, pomegranates and watermelons smouldering ominously in an empty landscape. Discussing the image at the time it was exhibited, Storrier said the idea had come to him while visiting an Egyptian tomb. 'In the Tomb of Rameses, I saw an image of a table of fruit, ducks, lotus flowers, the head of a bull, set alight as an offering to Aten, spirit of the sun. I started painting my picture as a monumental still life, but along the way it gained many levels of meaning, and its ambiguity is part of its strength. It's hard to say if it's a barbecue or a rubbish heap. Is it burning or cooking?'1
The still life is an ideal genre for Storrier giving context to his desire to balance a mannered style with submerged symbolic content. The ambiguity he speaks of in the work - the way the more ephemeral subjects of destruction, transformation and impermanence shadow an apparently innocuous decorative picture - is critical to the intellectual appeal of the still life, and to its appeal for modern surrealist painters such as René Magritte.
Like Storrier himself, the still life has suffered through its association with decoration and illusionism. Writing of the late nineteenth-century American still-life artist, William Harnett, Robert Hughes observes that he 'traded on the relative naivete that Americans had about illusion at the dawn of the photograhic age' and that 'his public loved to have its eyes fooled'. He also writes that: 'People associated the trompe-l'oeil painter with the trickster, the con man, the card sharp. How the hell did he do that? To be fooled and know you are being fooled (along with others) is a truly democratic joy'2
But if its ability to deceive the eye is one reason the still-life has been conventionally regarded with suspicion, an equally cogent one is offered by its association with the fetish objects of capitalist success. Still life paintings have historically offered wealthy patrons an opportunity to display their material wealth and present their bourgeois credentials to the world. On this score, there's no doubt that the decorative quality of Storrier's work has partly ensured his popularity with some of his more conservative collectors. But it's equally important when considering the artist's investment in the still life to recognise that the genre has a sharper side: it's also been a key mechanism for artists to bite, if not entirely sever, the hand that feeds them. In Australia, Storrier's own commercial success has tended to overshadow the harsher symbolic significance of a painting like Burning of the Gifts. But as Janet Hawley notes, in North America, works like these were seen in a different light:
The Americans interpreted Storrier's burning paintings in a way Australians hadn't. They were seen as highly political, ecological statements about the landscape and its vulnerability; the burning rope, fists, fruit, became symbols of civilisation consuming itself, leaving only the charred ruins on the horizon.3
While it would be a mistake to labour such an overtly political reading of these works, given the artist's disavowal of such a role for art, it's true that their strength lies in the ambiguity of their relationship to the fetishistic appeal of their subject matter and in the artist's desire to find the limits within which it's possible to make a simultaneously beautiful, but self-immolating image - to make a painting capable of consuming itself.
Professor Catharine Lumby 2000
1 Janet Hawley, 'Tim Storrier', Encounters with Australian Artists, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, p. 153 2 Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Harvill Press, London, 1997, p. 316 3 Janet Hawley, 'Tim Storrier', Encounters with Australian Artists, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, p. 147