In a recent exhibition, Scottish artist Derrick Guild presented work that he made during and soon after the nearly two years he spent on Ascension Island, a British dependency in the Atlantic just south of the equator, about halfway between Brazil and Gabon. The main event in scale and ambition was a series of botanical paintings titled “Ascension Plant.” On each of six canvases (they range from about 3 to 6 feet per side), Guild painted, in oil, enlarged trompe l’oeil depictions of botanicals on paper before black backgrounds. Each painted sheet is stained, torn and dog-eared, as if recovered after centuries of handling and folding, and bears a colorful, realistic rendering of an impossible plant. What seem at first to be unremarkable bouquets reveal themselves as strange hybrids, with flowers of different varieties blossoming in tandem off the same stalk. Ascension Plant I (2007), for example, shows a root and stem of cactus and aloe shooting forth lilies, violets and various other flowers.
Three resin sculptures accompanied the paintings. Likewise illusionistic, they are two potatoes and a fig leaf, upgraded: the fig leaf with the addition of pearl earrings, one of the potatoes with jewels where eyes would be, and the other, cleverly titled Two Sugars (2009), seemingly dipped in chocolate like a strawberry. From the depredations of colonialism to the ghoulishness of genetic engineering, Guild’s aberrations encapsulate a long Western history of manipulating and mishandling nature.
A careful artist, Guild isn’t as witty with paint as he is with his subject matter. These are striking pictures when seen from several yards or even feet away (and in reproduction). Up close, however, the paint seems dutifully applied, without the sort of surprises that make many representational paintings seem abstract when viewed in a micro-perspective. It’s disappointing that, with the exception of Burnt Fish (2008), where burn marks seem to have damaged the fish as well as the paper it’s rendered on, the paintings don’t follow a logic of decay: if the paper is worn, the painting on that paper would in theory be commensurately damaged. But the paint in those images is almost pristine, merely glazed lighter or darker, or slightly scratched right around the folds. It’s a cavil, but the decision points to a larger problem: Guild is at his best using realism to unearth the deep weirdness of things in the world, but less than thrilling in the fabrication of his illusions.
Photo: Derrick Guild: Ascension Plant II, 2008, oil on linen, 48 by 36 inches; at Allan Stone.