Olivia Bernardoff: In the bottom of the garden
Beaver Galleries, 81 Denison Street, Deakin
Closes February 28, Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday-Sunday 9am-5pm
Reviewer: Sasha Grishin
The first exhibition of Olivia Bernardoff's work which I recall seeing was at this gallery about a dozen years ago when she had just completed her art school studies as a mature age student.
She was then inspired by the Dutch still life tradition, with its intricate symbolism that quite often commented on the ephemeral nature of life. The cultural references were to artists who included Willem van Aelst, Willem Kalf and Johannes Vermeer. That obsession has continued into the present exhibition, where paintings such as Lifetime, Infinite nature, Footprint and Night garden all draw on the rich repertoire of still life elements but combine them with human organs - including livers, kidneys and brains. This is accompanied with a shower of pills and capsules. It is quite an engaging idea where the initial attraction for floral beauty and the bright colours is tempered with the abject. Perhaps a little too obvious to be called uncanny, but entertaining nonetheless.
Although the symbolism is quite engaging and in some pieces, including Mother nature, the theme of ''vanitas'' is supplemented by what one may term the ''dance macabre'', Barnardoff's awkwardness in technique mars the effectiveness of the finished work. The Dutch masters triumphed in the ''trompe l'oeil'' technique of painting where the symbolism sneaks up on the viewer like a hidden assassin and takes you by surprise.
Bernardoff's symbolic narratives are somewhat literary and heavy-handed and, although there could be a private level of meaning privileged to the artist and concealed from most viewers, the piling up of banksias, carnations and lilies, juxtaposed with entrails, livers and kidneys, along with an occasional skull and a smattering of pills, leaves little to the imagination. Attempts at illusionistic painting are largely unsuccessful for, although individual elements are well handled with their gleaming highlights, in none of the paintings is there a completely satisfactorily resolved composition which is realised through a well mastered technique.
The landscapes which are assembled out of these still life forms, including Nocturne and Bottom of the garden, also suffer from a roughness of execution and overstatement.
Alas, this is a concept-driven exhibition where the artist's inadequate mastery of technique means that she is unable to express in paint the ideas that she wishes to convey.