Memory, perception and the poetics of representation inform Christine Cornish’s art, in which she often blends painting, drawing and photography. ‘Natura morta’, an early series of 14 photographs, explored these ideas by referencing the still-life and vanitas tradition of European painting. The still-life genre depicted inanimate everyday objects such as fruit, flowers and, in ‘vanitas’ subjects, motifs including skulls and hourglasses, to symbolically refer to transience or death. These paintings were rendered in precise detail to make each object look astonishingly ‘real’, even though the result was an illusion. Cornish’s photographs bring similar conventions into play. Each image includes a cryptic object placed in front of a drawn background or, in the artist’s words, ‘a simulated space’.
In making this work Cornish was interested in levels of objectivity, how meaning is derived from context and cultural specificity, and the possibility of obsolescence. For example, still-life painting was often concerned with depicting objects whose meaning was specific to their allegorical potential – revealing the passage of nature from life through to death. In contrast, Cornish removes such obvious connotations, isolating objects in an inscrutable space that cannot be read as historically or metaphorically inclined and which is highly ambiguous and haunting. For her, photography is a ‘vessel of remembrance’. In ‘Natura morta’ she both emphasises (by drawing on the still-life tradition in the context of photographic practice) and dispels (by visually imbricating her objects) this understanding: ‘I have aimed to produce an obscurely synthesised rendering – a mysterious cohesion of real and unreal. The origins and symbolic functions of the objects are unclear … Realising the isolation and finiteness of what is present in the image, we are also aware of the infinity of what is absent.’1
1. All quotes are from the artist’s unpublished Master of Arts thesis, 1988, City Arts Institute
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
gelatin silver photograph
22.2 x 26.9 cm sight; 37.7 x 41.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated on sheet, ink "1987/ Christine Cornish".
Not on display
© Christine Cornish
Shown in 1 exhibition
The Enigmatic Object, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Apr 1997–22 Jun 1997
Referenced in 3 publications
Natasha Bullock, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'Time - memory - place', pg.288-311, Sydney, 2007, 302 (illus.).
Sandra Byron and Unknown, Twenty contemporary Australian photographers - from the Hallmark Cards Australian Photographic Collection, Melbourne, 1990, 38.
Judy Annear, The Enigmatic Object, Sydney, 1997.