Some Recent Work by Terry Stringer

I tried to find beauty there where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of still life.
MARCEL PROUST, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu


The solid wood desk, on which I am writing, formerly a wooden Rimu door, is equipped with five large drawers. Illuminating its surface is a chrome desk lamp with a triangular shade; magnetised to the side sticks a small red wooden goldfish with large eyes and a hinged tail that vacillates in the breeze. Set on top of each other, at the left - hand end of the desk, are two rectangular cane baskets; protruding from the top lies a yellow Manila folder marked ACCTS TO PAY in brown felt pen down its outer edge. To the right is a yellow handle-driven pencil sharpener on which appear in black the words STAEDILER 50120 GERMANY; a pile of books with their titles facing inwards: Leonardo da Vinci TREATISE ON PAINTING McCahon 1 TEXT, SSP150 MICHEL FOUCAULT The Order of Things, Emile Benveniste Problems in General Linguistics MIAMI, Language as Symbolic Action BURKE; a Casio pocket calculator; an NT CUTTER S-200 Made in Japan; a discoloured pewter mug full of assorted pencils, ball pens and paintbrushes; a plastic bottle of Davis gum to which adheres a Square white sticker 89c. Centred in front of the cane desk chair, lying flat, is a sheet of white unlined paper on which are written the following words: The solid wood desk, on which I am writing ...

Table with Lily in a Bottle (detail) 1984
bronze, 1000 x 580 x 200 mm.
(The Paris Family Collection, Wellington)

The very language of this description embodies the qualities, tendencies and resistances of still life. Description forgets all the grand themes and distorts them by the minor figuration of some minimal object - an insignification. The most striking distinctive characteristic of all still life is the exclusive presence of banal objects. As a sculptor working in both bronze and painted folded aluminium, Terry Stringer has long been interested in the figuration of these everyday objects found in the domestic interstices of life: flowers in a bottle or vase, a half-full glass of water, leaves in a glass, crumpled tablecloth, knife and orange peel, bowl of fruit, a scarf, rag, map, a painted photograph, feathers, eggs, mementoes - the detritus of social life - what he has termed 'domestic ephemera'.(1) These objects, like the still life that reproduces them, are also products of human action as Meyer Schapiro notes: objects that, whether artificial or natural, are subordinate to man as elements of use, manipulation and enjoyment; these objects are smaller than ourselves, within arm's reach, and owe their ' Presence and place to a human action, a purpose. They convey man's sense of his power over things in making or utilising them; they are instruments as well as products of his skills, his thoughts and appetites.(2)

This fascination with the insignificant object has something to do with a child's unique relationship to the inanimate world. The familiar objects, playthings and toys of the nursery, predetermine the psychological attitude of the artist, whose imagination is aroused by simple things within the immediate reach of the hand. Terry Stringer shares this impulse as well in his earlier wooden sculptures with their moveable playing parts, his predilection for pop-up cards and his fascination with children's toys, Stringer: 'I regard toys as sculpture'.(3)

Table Setting 1981
oil on aluminium,
1270 x 1500 x 200 mm.

In Terry Stringer's still lifes there is no grammar; no story is being told; yet (and here is the paradox) they. seem to ask something of us, something that they do not provide, seem to demand that their spectators become the storytellers and write the narrative of these juxtaposed objects. Take Domestic Shrine (1981) where the complicated hingeing heightens the sense of juxtaposition and the book-like construction implies a process of reading: what is to be told of the relationship between the anonymous photograph and the Greta Garbo pin-up, the connections between ashtray, blue scarf, golden slipper and vase of chrysanthemums? It is precisely because of this paradox that many critics have written of the feeling of nostalgia that Terry Stringer's work engenders - nostalgia for the recent past of the 'fifties, the world of art deco or the cinema, New Zealand's literary and artistic heritage (evidenced by the recurrent portrayal of Katherine Mansfield, Frances Hodgkins, Frank Sargeson and Rita Angus).4 There is an aesthetic pleasure of a familiar reality in Stringer's chosen objects (the family cat, for example): but these are also metaphysical objects, haunted objects opposed to the real. They are so because they have abandoned all action, all narrative, and they retrace the haunting memory of a lost reality. Significantly, the very process of casting bronze partakes of this sense of haunting in the transposition from form to mould to finished image. And, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, there is something of death in every description, the same death that creeps into the French term for still life (nature morte) : Here is how we might understand description: it strives to render what is strictly mortal in the object by feigning (illusion by reversal) to suppose it, to desire it living.. 'capturing life' really means 'seeing dead'.(5)

The objects of a still life, either distended or strung out along a horizon or carefully clustered around one another, are consciously displayed for their spectator, so that the notion of a separate space, a background against which they could be measured and from which they could take their meaning, is prevented. Let us now examine this dynamics of display.

Seen at the Denis Cohn Gallery, Auckland
(three views),  March 1984

A significant part of Stringer's interest in and use of tables - dating from the early Torso/Flowers on the Table (1977) exhibited at the 1978 Mildura Sculpture Triennial in Australia - is the function of the table to display objects, the table as a stand or doubling as a plinth for the sculpted object. Stringer has also consistently set his smaller pieces within the context of the table motif Here are some exhibition titles: Tabletop Works (1981), Table Time (1982), Cards on the Tabletop (1984) - the latter was also innovative in that it used the wall to function as the flat surface of the table top from which objects were projected. In each case with these table works the table functions to display but, paradoxically, the table is part of the artist's display. Table with Fruit (1982) is a polychromed bronze but it is only the objects displayed on the table surface that have been delicately coloured. The bowl of oranges, tilted at an unsettling angle, has been placed in one corner diametrically opposed by an orange, peel and knife projecting out from the table edge at the other.

The paradox is present most consciously in the recent bronze Table with Lily in a Bottle (1984), where the table is no longer square but squashed flat through its main axis into a triangular shape with an illusory fourth leg and displays again in a juxtaposed fashion two objects - a scarf and a lily in a bottle. Here the complexity arises from the fact that the distortion which the objects have undergone - in particular the bottle and lily stem broken by refraction through suggested water - is carried over to the table which supports them.

Domestic Shrine 1981
oil on aluminium,
570 x 570 x 270 mm. 
(Collection of the
Robert McDougall Art Gallery)

To be sure then, the space in which these still life objects appear is only an installation space, a created space of specific fictionality. Schapiro has noted something similar of all still lifes: 'There is in still life a unity of things like the unity of a scene of action'.(6) This in turn introduces us to what we could call the theatricality of Stringer's work. Stringer is one of the few New Zealand artists, possibly the only sculptor, to have been extensively involved in stage and set design, for many small theatrical productions in Auckland and notably the Downstage production of Cabaret in Wellington. For the latter he recalled his previous sculptural work and used paradoxical perspective, bevelled tables and chairs, rooms twisted out of square, and created buildings that folded into each other. Stringer is consciously aware of the importance of this theatricality for his sculptures; of his installation Wraparound Sculpture at the National Art Gallery in 1982 he said: 'Settings for a sculpture can change it completely. So it would be logical for an artist to control everything in the field of vision.'(7)

His Living Room of 1981 proposed such a control: it contained a reconstructed middle class lounge with specially created objects, the ensemble functioning as if it were a stage set. Two recent exhibitions, Museum Corridor at the Janne Land Gallery and Seen at Denis Cohn's, have extended this metaphor of theatricality through the use of curtains - or more correctly, plain canvas with the illusion of folds sprayed on - to provide a 'stage set' for the works displayed and, as with the paradox of the individual tables, the curtains function to display and are part of the display. The title of the Cohn exhibition tellingly puns between still life - 'seen' past participle, the object seen, fixed, immobile, 'stilled' - and theatricality - the 'scene' of the object.

Cards on the Tabletop
oil on aluminium,
2640 x 3960 x 250 mm.
(Installation in the
Last and First Cafe,
Auckland, May 1984)

Hitherto, critical response to Stringer's work has tended to reduce it to the essentials of an exploration of the conflict or reconciliation between the vocabularies of painting and sculpture, between the two- and the three-dimensional; his interest in distortion and illusion as evidence of juggling the three-dimensional object to masquerade as two dimensions.8 it would be more fruitful, I suggest, to view these works in bronze and aluminium as part of the conflation and transition of genres: from trompe-l'oeil to still life. The development of the genre of still life during the classical period, according to Gombrich(9), is born from the trompe-l'oeil tradition, from compromise between the vogue for trompe-l'oeil paintings and a desire to confound the distinction between painter and painting, truth and fiction. Having described some of the attributes of the still life genre applicable to Stringer's sculptures, I want to shift to his use of codes of trompe-l'oeil. The enjoyment of trompe-l'oeil comes from an intense sense of knowing the game; it is never a matter of confusion with the real, but of consciousness of the game of artifice. The definition of trompe-l'oeil from Webster's Third New International Dictionary emphasises this, as well as stressing the connections with still life: 'intensification of the reality of component objects in an unnaturally arranged still life ... often characterised by exaggerated perspective, abrupt contrast of light and sh~de, or general stylisation which stresses artificiality'.

Here it is useful to compare Stringer's presentation of the refraction of objects in water and the distortion of images seen through glass and water to comprehend how the elements of artificiality serve to intensify the reality. Leaves in a Glass, an early shelf work, Table Cloth Still Life and the recent Cards on the Tabletop all contain the common feature of a painted glass of water reflecting a distorted image of the material on which it has been placed. The glass bends the image in a circular fashion and functions concurrently as a magnifying glass. From the spectator's point of view, the whole appears as a curious anamorphic original, since the angle at which it is viewed is not the angle from which it is painted: in all, a subtle elucidation of Stringer's stated concerns: 'I am interested in the illusions of painting extended into real space, so that when being looked at there is a shifting consciousness of the illusion, and the actual object.'(10)

Table Cloth Still Life 1981
oil on aluminium, 580 x 370 x 80 mm.
(Private Collection, Auckland)

Whereas still life always preserves real things marked out by horizontality, trompe-l'oeil plays upon weightlessness marked out by a vertical field in which depth is inverted. While all space in painting since the Renaissance is ordered by a vanishing line which moves into depth, here in trompe-l'oeil, the effect of perspective is thrown forward. Instead of objects vanishing panoramically before the scanning eye (where priority is given to some centralised disposition of the world), here it is the objects which 'fool' the eye by counteracting the privileged position of the gaze. Stringer himself is explicit: 'I like changing perspective and viewpoints so that things are perceived in a different way ... I like playing with space.'(11) A crux, then, concerns the unequivocal intrusion of the trompe-l'oeil illusion into the viewer's own plane at surprisingly close quarters. The effect of this decentering forwards is to be found in many of Stringer's aluminium pieces: in Table Cloth Still Life, the table with its accompanying tablecloth as well as the tablecloth folds, half of the plate, the glass and its shadow, jut out and down from the wall at an oblique angle. Stringer has also emphasised the intrusion by employing one of the familiar devices of traditional depiction of perspective: the geometrical pattern of diamonds reproduced on the tablecloth. The larger Table Setting (1984) repeats a similar impulse where the aluminium sheet forming the table is folded out, then down with the areas at the two edges representing the tablecloth folds being turned out again. Also, once again, the effect is enhanced by the use of traditional perspective squares and delicate shading, along with objects which point out towards the spectator. Notice how, for example, the front edge of the square box is further emphasised by the fact that the tiny vase it supports is placed on the rear corner.

This pushing forward of the objects to encounter a subject mirrors one of the most important impulses of sculpture, that is, the spectator's felt need to move towards the object, to touch the sculpture. These works centered forward aim to call into question, one might say dissolve, the boundary between the space or world of the representation and that of the spectator seeking to fictively break through the wall of illusion.

Table with Fruit 1982
polychrome bronze,
600 x 570 x 390 min.
(Collection of the
National Art Gallery)

Implicit in all these observations is the notion that fundamental to an appreciation of Terry Stringer's art is an understanding of his examination of the conventions of painting and sculpture. The idea of convention runs counter to our more or less conscious idea of the artist and creativity, both of which are surrounded by values of mythic depth. Convention stresses painting and sculpture as a 'cultivated activity', a response to the world and tradition of art.(12) Thus genre reflects and codifies the artist's intention as well as enabling the spectator to decode the coded system of signs produced. As we have seen, Stringer's work implicates his viewer in just that sort of relationship and it is his consummate playing with the codes of the genres with which he experiments that makes him one of the most gifted, demanding and, at the same time, distinctive of New Zealand sculptors.

1. 'Artist's Statement' from Living Room, a touring, exhibition organized by the Sarjeant and Manawatu Art Galleries.
2. Meyer Schapiro, 'The Apples of Cézanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life' in his Modern Art 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, vol. 2 (London 1978), p. 19.
3. Personal communication to the writer.
4. For example: Gordon H. Brown, Auckland Star, July 6 1981; Neil Rowe, Evening Post, August 8 1981; Derek SchuIz, Listener, August 15 1981; and Neil Rowe again significantly mentions 'a nostalgia for the lost world of childhood', Evening Post, November 26 1981.
5. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York 1977), p. 68, translation modified.
6. Schapiro, op cit p. 24.
7. 'Artist's Statement' from Wraparound Sculpture, National Art Gallery July/September 1982.
8. In particular: Derek Schuiz, 'Unified Distortion', Listener August 15 1981; Stephen Ellis, 'The Sculptures of Terry Stringer', Art New Zealand 13, pp. 20 - 21 and his review of Seen in New Outlook May/June 1984, p. 43.
9. E.H. Gombrich, 'Tradition and Expression in Western Still Life' in his Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London 1963), pp. 95 - 105.
10. 'Statement' in New Zealand Sculptors at Mildura, Catalogue of the National Tour Organized by Q.E. II Arts Council of New Zealand, p. 42.
11. Evening Post, October 27 1983, p. 28.
12. For the debate between convention and naturalism in New Zealand art commentary see Francis Pound, Frames on the Land: Early Landscape Painting in New Zealand (Auckland 1983), pp. 14 - 16.