The Legacy of the Still Life in Olivia Parker’s Exploratory Photography

Olivia Parker’s photographs are experiments within the still-life tradition, informed by art history and consistently engaged with ever-evolving photo technology.

Parker began her photography career in 1970, following a formal education in art history. Primarily self-taught, she’s been featured in over 100 solo exhibitions around the world and her images are often referenced in academic discussions of modern photography. Over the course of her career, Parker has demonstrated fervent interest in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of various technologies such as Polaroid and Cibachrome film, digital photography, and Photoshop, while also experimenting with light and staged studio constructions. 

Parker once said of her work, “the images retain the formal shell of the expected, but have elements of the unexpected.” The “shell of the expected” is in her essentially straightforward depiction of inanimate objects, specifically those known from countless historical still-life paintings: fruit, fowl, vegetables, baskets, ceramic vessels, plants and flowers, objects that have become associated with universal themes such as birth, life, love, and death over centuries.

Parker’s art historical background undoubtedly informs her subject matter and the aforementioned customary objects are, upon first glance, the focus of the work. But with closer inspection, the primary subjects are decentered by unexpected elements and become mutable, fluid aspects of the entire image. This process of decentering is an integral part of each image. Take Falcon with Bells (2012), for instance. The falcon is the ostensible focal point of the image; Parker shows a hyperreal representation of the bird standing atop what appears to be an oxidized piece of glinting metal, its feet and talons wrapped in leather and bells. The background of the photograph is entirely out of focus, filled with shadows and fuzzy sunset gradient, a mysterious swipe of green and orange in one corner, inexplicable halos of red pigment in two others. A single white feather floats in the middle of the painting, above the falcon. The feather captures our attention as an anomaly within the image, leading us to question the verity of the photograph, and implying an ambiguous and surreal narrative in which the falcon is equated with the feather and the abstract background.

In Radishes (2011), a bunch of radishes hangs in the middle of the frame from a piece of twine. In the background is a hazy landscape, like the view from a far-off porthole, and adjacent to it is a single blurred radish, suspended on its own, without a string. Similarly, in Artichoke 1 (2010), an artichoke hangs from a string in the middle of the image and a misty window appears in the background.

The unexpected juxtapositions and playful manipulations of light and texture that appear frequently in Parker’s work have set her apart among her contemporaries. Her particular use of surprising and often contrasting elements within the framework of a still life create a dynamic space wherein the known and symbolic collides with the abstract and surreal, this friction sparking larger questions about representation and truth.  

—M.A. Wholey

Still/Life” is on view at Robert Klein Gallery, Boston, Dec. 13, 2014–Jan. 31, 2015.

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