Eldon Garnet

Cold City Gallery

Eldon Garnet’s photographic tableaux explore the relationship between nature and still-life painting. Aptly titled Vanitas, 1992, each of the three triptychs in this exhibition focuses on the artificiality of the still-life genre. Ironically responding to our obsession with the environment, Garnet suggests that a fine line can be drawn between the estheticization of nature in traditional still-life imagery and in “green” politics: between the way in which each fulfills our desire for the “nautral.”

Foregrounding and isolating single animals in each of his photographs, Garnet dramatically lights and stages his subjects to draw the viewer into his work. In one image, a dragonfly hangs motionless, suspended by a red thread attached to its tail, while in another, a bird, its back twisted into a pose possible only in death, is similarly suspended from an almost invisible thread. Whether of a bird, a bat, or an insect, each image is alarmingly verisimilar, stirring childhood memories of a first encounter with a dead animal in the garden or along a roadside, yet seductive in its textural overlays of woodland findings. Garnet frequently juxtaposes the texture and mortality of the once-living with the inanimateness of the inorganic, an “opposition” that pervades these works.

Appropriating and critiquing the still-life genre, Garnet constructs a perceptual space that eschews implied objectivity in favor of drawing the viewer into the space of the object, zooming his lens toward vortices of light situated deep within the photographs. This allows the viewer the freedom to shift effortlessly from an external space of wood and snakeskin to the hyperreality of deep interior spaces, drawing attention to the deceptive nature of the still life by clearly marking these tableaux as studio setups.

Central to the Vanitas triptychs is a Brechtian affect of declared artificiality that allows for an ironic critical perspective. Here, the value attached to the natural is questioned by Garnet’s re-presentation of the hunting trophies depicted in traditional still-life painting. It is his creation of this discursive space that has, perhaps, mollified the tempest of outcries from animal-protection activists. (According to the artist, he used animals that were found dead, then incorporated them into the work, but artists like Alan Belcher have been crucified for less.) Though he’s treading on thin ice, Garnet has achieved a surprising effect: an ironic play between our often artificial representations of nature and our desire for the “natural.”

Linda Genereux