Maria Gravias - 'Still Light - Vanitas Reimagined'

Wednesday 24 August - Saturday 10 September 2022


"I have an abiding interest in, and respect for, philosophy, aesthetics and the metaphysical domain - the complex ideas embedded in differing world views and how we choose to navigate our lives in line with those belief systems. For instance, in traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. ‘Wabi' is a mindset that appreciates humility, simplicity and frugality as routes to tranquility and contentment. ‘Sabi’ has come to communicate a deep and tranquil beauty that emerges with the passage of time. In line with this ‘less is more’ aesthetic, the aim of my photographic practice is to invite the viewer to contemplate and meditate on the extraordinary beauty and simplicity of ordinary objects.

The search and acquisition of objects for my still life photographs (from personal collections, antique bazaars and opportunity shops) is intrinsic to my artistic process. Finding pre-loved possessions for inclusion in my still lifes gives those static, inanimate objects a personal history. I try to animate the inanimate to convey a narrative about their owners.

The concept of reuse of objects is also embedded in wabi-sabi - the aesthetic that is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. We often dismiss the banal and my photographic imagery iconises those everyday objects and elevates them to command respect from the viewer. In recent times I have concentrated on the ‘tondo’ format, a Renaissance term used to describe a circular work of art. Circles are symbolic and speak of the cycle of life. In nature everything is circuitous - life, death, rebirth. 

My work also strongly references the art historical and pays homage to the long-standing, respected tradition of the still life genre. Seventeenth century Dutch still life painting and the Vanitas tradition are my principal sources of inspiration. Vanitas still lifes include objects with symbolic importance which convey a narrative through their symbolism and highlight the fragility and transience of human existence. My photographic practice embraces and alchemises the conventions and practices of the still life genre to make visually engaging and contemporary photographic art.

I utilise only natural light in my photographic practice. I feel that it reinforces the verisimilitude of the images and is reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Age when 16th and 17th century painters were fascinated with natural light and its optical effects such as reflection and refraction, on lustrous surfaces and highly polished surfaces like silver, pewter and glass. Some might see the use of natural light as a constraint but I think it puts me in touch with the original Dutch still life painters who only ever utilised natural light. I’m also intrigued with the trajectory of light and the play of light on surfaces and chiaroscuro in particular - a canonical mode of Renaissance painting, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark creating mood and mystery and spatial depth. In my compositions, selected objects are arranged theatrically and as advantageously as possible to capture the viewer’s attention. Seventeenth century Dutch still lifes, as mentioned, were imbued with symbolism - and there were sophisticated ciphers that the educated and cultured viewer was expected to decode. This genre offered opportunities for both moral contemplation, academic and even scientific study. Fruit and vegetables, for example, generally symbolise the ephemerality of existence - life and beauty are fleeting. My artistic goal is to capture and convey that ephemeral beauty - for what is life without beauty?"

Maria Gravias, July 2022