Joseph Plaskett, OC, RCA
The Sublime Mastery of Still Life

Joseph Plaskett – The Stillness of Life

Today — captive to cell phones, social media, and the relentless pursuit of Progress — the seemingly passive nature of a still life painting may come across as nostalgic. However, such an idea could not be further from the truth, still lifes remain as cutting-edge a subject matter as ever. Consider for a moment how many times a family member, friend, colleague, (or you) has expressed a desire to unplug from life’s contemporary and incessant agitations. As a global population, we crave the opportunity to slow-down and to pay close attention to our existence, to simply ‘be still’. Slow down; it is the mantra of our times.

Joseph Plaskett is an honoured Canadian painter. He was nominated by Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris for the very first Emily Carr Scholarship in 1946. It was that early prize that launched Plaskett’s international studies, taking him first to California and New York (where he benefited from time under Clyfford Still, and Hans Hoffmann), and then on to France in 1949. Plaskett found his life’s work in Paris. The city, and his apartment in it, shaped and inspired his drawings and paintings until near the end of his life.

Since the dawn of paper and canvas, still lifes have signified the same challenge for pupils of the visual arts. They are teaching tools and they are muses of colour, texture, subject, light and shadow. Inactive physically, still lifes are ‘easy’ to see but challenge the artist’s ability to look. To create a still life, an artist must make concrete choices about what it is they endeavor to capture, the possibilities of which are – inherently – limitless. Say the words “still life” and an absolute wealth of iconic images rush to mind: Cezanne’s apples, Matisse’s goldfish or red room, Georgia O’Keeffe’s cow skulls, Mary Pratt’s jam jars, or Molly Lamb Bobak’s wildflowers. And yet, consider for a moment the inventiveness of Plaskett’s Sweet Pea Bouquet (2005). Among other possible subjects, this image brings to mind our Canadian flag. The plausibility of this metaphor can be tied to the knowledge that Plaskett (then living in England) wrote in 2008, on the occasion of his 90th birthday: “The ecstasy I feel as I survey work I have done I want to share with the world – not the whole world which couldn’t care less, but my private world, which is my country, Canada”. Of his piece, Still life on Blue (2009), Plaskett seems to challenge us to consider whether his subjects are truthfully, the objects on the table or rather, the spaces (the distance) between them – as though drawing were instead a study of anthropomorphic dynamics. And, in Still Life of Sculptures I, where Plaskett engaged in a form of image-making very similar to that of Claude Monet in his later work, he was moving towards the near abstraction of his subjects. See in the drawing the three knick-knacks (two seated cats and a bird) - as subjects, they are clearly secondary to the expressive quality and restrained quantity of the pastel marks Plaskett has laid down on the page. In these works, Plaskett offers us an opportunity to slow down - be still – to wonder about the, seemingly, simplest of things in life.

Plaskett died in 2014 at the age of 96. In an essay from 2008, Plaskett wrote on the topic of painting and old age, he commented that “Death may be a friend of genius, allowing works that were still in the white heat of creation to survive before the exigencies of accepted merit would lessen the heat”. Both timeless and timely, the works currently on exhibit at Gallery 78, brim with all the heat of Plaskett’s lifeblood — masterfully stilling our hectic contemporary lives.

Danielle Hogan, Ph.D.

Artists in this Exhibit