There was once a great paint-off between 5th century BC artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius. A master of illusionism, Zeuxis’s painting of a bunch of grapes was so realistic that birds flew up and attempted to eat the sweet fruit. In its ability to outperform reality, Zeuxis’s art sets out a number of relationships between painting, technical mastery and truth that reverberate throughout art history. This story, and grapes themselves, would become a staple of the still-life and trompe l’oeil genres. Within the frame of the historical still-life, valuables and delicacies proliferate in celebration of taste, wealth, and possession. More than anything, they demonstrated a desire to control and consume the world.
Martin Basher and Ben Buchanan approach painting from the other end of history. They paint at a time when these drives have pushed the world to the edge of destruction and those relationships symbolised by Zeuxis’s grapes have all been shattered. While referencing both still-life and historical painting, their practices are of the present, not the past. They explore the agency and potentiality of painting at a time when a climate emergency, extractive capitalist excess, and swirling cultures of misinformation have fractured all notions of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’. What would Zeuxis do?
Both artists create painterly ‘environments’ or ‘ecosystems’ that push and pull between representation and reality, and the natural and the artificial. Buchanan’s new suite of trippy, immersive canvases move us between micro- and macro- worlds. They also shift between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, and western and Māori understandings of te taiao (the natural world) to explore the potential of paintings themselves as living, breathing entities that hold mauri (life force). Basher presents minimalist botanical still-lives—as paintings, sculptures, or groves and thickets of painting-sculpture hybrids. They articulate our precarious relationship to what might now only exist as a distanced and highly artificial abstraction of ‘nature’, one often force-fed to us through the seductive visual languages of consumerism that Basher has long co-opted.
Sour Grapes is laced with sincerity and cynicism, faith and doubt, especially when it comes to any hope in art’s ability to enact change upon the world or even to find beauty and wonder within it. Even Zeuxis’ ‘victory’ was short-lived. After fooling the birds, he went to remove the curtain in front of Parrhasius’s painting, only to find that it too was painted. He, like the birds, had been fooled. Sour Grapes is not a competition between two artists vying for mastery over each other, their medium, or the nature of reality. Rather, it is a collaborative gesture that explores some shared possibilities and tensions for painting now.
City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, 17 December 2023 – 23 April 2024