The table is a deeply symbolic object, both as a meeting place and an enabler of culture. From the ancient Chinese, who created tables to practise the arts of painting and writing, to the tables in 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings which bore emblematic objects as reminders of life's transience, the table has been associated with nobility, culture and privilege. It is, of course, also rooted in the domestic.
In an exhibition titled What We Bring to the Table currently running at Oakville Galleries, Gairloch Gardens, four artists present works that offer varying contemporary interpretations of the dining table. Curator Marnie Fleming built the show around French artist Patrick Faigenbaum's photograph Pantijelew Family (1997) from the gallery's collection. "It was my intention to further a dialogue with that work," she says. "By bringing different works into the exhibition, we're able to suggest other psychological and emotional relationships."
Pantijelew Family is a strikingly rich portrait of a German family seated behind their dining table in an arrangement clearly reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. The mother - a beauty with red painted lips and auburn hair - leans forward, commanding the table, her husband cast back in shadow, their two teenage sons on either side. Plates of meat and potatoes are enhanced by side dishes and glasses of juice, with a bottle of Russian vodka neatly dividing the scene. It's a typical middle-class European family, where the wife controls the domestic realm as both cook and caregiver. The image's classical references, rich colour and chiaroscuro tone complete a scene that speaks to the power relations within many families. It's easily the strongest work on view.
Nature Morte, (2006) a video by Montreal-based artist Bettina Hoffmann, occupies the first room in the exhibition. The camera swirls in a 360-degree loop around a dinner scene that has been magically frozen in time. Two men sit at a table after dinner amid empty wine bottles and coffee cups, while a woman looks on from the doorway. There's an implied tension between the men that brings to mind one of Jeff Wall's staged photographs. Although we're familiar with filmic narrative, here the action has stopped, leaving only the camera's movement. This heightened state of suspense draws attention to time's passing, frustrating the viewer while transforming a single moment into a concrete object, a sculpture to be contemplated.
The show continues with a number of photographic still lifes by Laura Letinsky that delight in insignificant, everyday moments. I Did Not Remember I Had Forgotten #65, (2002) shows a white plate nestled beside a larger white bowl, which holds some leftover biscuits. The biscuits' scalloped-edges echo a turquoise cake stand where a ring of crumbs suggests the recent presence of a tart. A blooming paper napkin has been set down as if in haste. A patch of sunlight frames the scene. It's a classic still life, at once casually arranged yet filled with an almost spiritual pathos.
The pale Morning and Melancholia #32 (2001) shows a bent-over, dying Easter lily in a vase, surrounded by its own dried petals. Two bright yellow cherry tomatoes punctuate the scene, as do a number of carefully placed cheerios. Several pieces of blue and white porcelain peeking out from behind give the image depth. Many of Letinsky's works, of which there are six in this exhibition, are modern memento mori. Like Faigenbaum's photograph and Hoffmann's video, Letinsky's works refer to historical precedents in art to remind us that a meal's beginning, middle and end may be read as a metaphor for life.
Fleming has managed - with three artists in a small venue - to create an elegant, if restrained show that is unfortunately disrupted by Nook #3 (2007), by the Canadian artist collective Instant Coffee. The installation is like a restaurant booth, painted orange, outfitted with coloured lights, turntable and disco balls. It has the comforting otherworldliness of a child's fort, or, perhaps more intentionally, a six-person party - just add beer. The jarring psychedelic environment contrasts awkwardly with the rest of the exhibition, as it's less about memory than about experience. But perhaps that's a good thing. In any case, according to Fleming, it's a place where the gallery staff enjoys eating their lunch.
At Oakville Galleries, Gairloch Gardens until June 6.