At first glance, I believed Sharon Core’s works to be slick oil paintings, specifically an homage to the 17th-century Flemish still life. There are ripened fruits and fanciful ceramics arranged carefully on neutral surfaces, all rendered with painstaking detail. The objects are lit sparsely, so they leap forth from the dark backgrounds like an actor bowing on a shadowy stage.
Admiring the smooth, velvety surfaces of the works, I soon realized they aren’t paintings at all—they are photographs, the telltale reflection of a strobe light appearing in the curved body of a glass pitcher.
Quite apart from still life painting, which requires mastery of the medium to depict myriad textures and surfaces, photographers of still lifes need not concern themselves with such a skill. The camera does this for them, faithfully reproducing whatever is placed in front of it.
Normally this realization would cause a depreciable change in my assessment; after all, a photograph whose purpose is to show vivid detail and realism is at best tautological, especially when its subjects are so distinctly influenced by dead white men. Nonetheless, I continued to admire the works for what they are—simple studies of color and composition. They recall a pre-modernist approach to imagery that seeks only to depict beauty and demonstrate skill—though it turns out I was wrong on this account as well.
Core’s images are actually (nearly) exact copies of works by Raphaelle Peale, a 19th-century American artist. To make matters murkier, Core does not use the original works as her reference; rather, she relies on reproductions of the works in books. Within a span of a few minutes, the work had transformed from fairly straightforward, if derivative, paintings executed in a traditional vein to conceptually motivated post-modern mirrors made for deconstructionist theory. Not bad.
Using pre-existing imagery as a source for one’s artwork is by now an accepted practice, whether it be a photograph used for reference, a wink at a past work by echoing its qualities, or out-and-out appropriation of another’s image. But Core takes it one step further by putting forth a new image that is neither authored nor altered by her.
Producing a so-called master copy is a standard academic practice, serving to instruct the makers by allowing them to see through another’s eyes. However, Core’s devotion to the look of the paintings, a tricky act of translation involving the reproduction as an intermediary, is impressive in its thoroughness. This is most notable in the thickly coated bases upon which the objects rest. At any distance, these surfaces project a painterly quality, complete with deeply grooved brushstrokes and mottled surfaces that resemble the fading directional light of a nearby window. Even after the cat is out of the bag, the images retain a residue of unreality.
Core’s treatment of her source imagery is unusual for visual art. As with cover bands or remakes of films, Core uses the original as a blueprint for her finished works, not necessarily to embellish but rather just to do it. Still, her devotion to the original sets her apart from mere disciples of art history. Core acts more as a time-traveler and upsets the natural continuum of our history books.
Other examples, such as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho or Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which a contemporary writer sets out to pen Don Quixote, seem to consider the original work as merely a debut, much like a theater play that is being revived. By making them again, the implications—indeed the meanings of the works—seem to shift. Introducing this practice into the realm of visual art is an interesting comment on our reliance of reproductions and pictures.
It is said history is written by the victors, and art history is no different. By giving the more well-known Peale an update, Core slyly inserts herself into the canon.
Sharon Core: Early American
Through Feb. 13
James Kelly Contemporary
1601 Paseo de