Reality Check - Contemporary American Trompe L'Oeil
Catenary Curve, 2008
Oil on canvas, 59 x 71½inches
Collection of Dr. Charles Hamlin
Fraser's works often combine unlikely objects, creating mysterious images that seem to be puzzles for viewers to solve. In this painting, he looks to the art of the past, arranging postcard-like reproductions of well-known paintings into a composition inspired by the image in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting: Juan Sánchez Cótan's Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602, San Diego Museum of Art).
The artist's remarks:
"The image that is the cornerstone in this work is Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat (1793, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), generally considered to be one of his best works. In contrast to David's usual, more Neo-Classical compositions, there is simplicity to this image even with its strong emotional content. A major factor in the composition is the dark existential space around the figure. If the artist had filled up that empty space with objects, the painting would not have nearly the same impact.
As a still life painter, I was looking for an image to tie comfortably in with this figurative work by David. I rediscovered a painting I have always admired by Juan Sánchez Cótan's Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602, San Diego Museum of Art). Like his contemporaries Velázquez and Zurbarán, Cótan was a master of the still life, but with unique twists. His practice of suspending common objects from string to manipulate their place on the canvas was compositionally outrageous in his time. I believe Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber is one of the greatest still lifes ever painted, and I knew I had found the bridge to the David, with both artists using vast areas of dark space.
"Structurally, I set the painting up along similar lines to Cótan's, substituting reproductions of other works I admired for the fruits and vegetables, and selecting some key painters who have been inspirational to me. The old frame which I found on Ebay and a packing crate from my storage room provided the two main props supporting the works of art I wanted to use. Bubble wrap helped connect some of these historical references to the 21st century.
"The title Catenary Curve refers to the shape of a hanging flexible line when supported at both ends. This curve is reflected in my composition, which is a complex time line of art that grew out of other art. First, I used Ingres's Mme. Mortessier (1856, National Gallery, London) because he studied with David. This painting was inspirational to numerous other artists, including Matisse, who loved the portrait so much that he painted his own version, Lady in Blue (1937, Philadelphia Museum of Art), the next image in my line up. The bold form and strong color of this work draw the eye to the center of the painting. Adjacent to this is a piece by Richard Diebenkorn, one of my favorite American artists. There were times early in Diebenkorn's career when you couldn't tell the difference between his work and the work of Matisse, so great was his admiration of the man. Later he embarked on a series inspired by his residence in Ocean Park that established his place in the contemporary art world. I used a later Diebenkorn piece which echoes Cótan's in a reverse kind of way. It is a large light square supported by an abstract niche surrounding an open field of empty space. Finally, on the bottom right corner of the painting I arrived at my compositional inspiration, securing it in place with a scalpel, referring back to the mortally wounded Marat."
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