Derrick Guild, born in Perth, Scotland in 1963, works in the ongoing tradition of the kitchen still life, a genre practiced brilliantly by the Frenchman Chardin and seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish painters. Guild’s riveting small-scale oils were on view this spring at Allan Stone Gallery in New York City. Velázquez, Zurbáran and one of Guild’s particular favorites, Juan Sánchez Cótan, are clear influences on these hyper-realistic edible objects displayed against inky backdrops. By doing away with the conventional settings of tabletop and cupboard, Guild isolates his subjects and gives them a metaphysical cast. “Food,” he remarks, “has many intrinsic, physical qualities. It’s always recognizable; there is a certain timeless quality to its form. It encapsulates death, sensual pleasure, longing.” The vanitas tradition of still life is pertinent to these images; iconographically freighted flowers and fruits (Mary’s lily, Eve’s apple, Bacchus’s grapes) have long been a vehicle for messages about mortality and carpe diem exhortations. But Guild prefers sturdier, less glamorous subjects, especially vegetables. His legerdemain in capturing the coarse surfaces of these humble things is a testament to his technical skill, and by sheer force of attention he finds beauty even in the ungainly root depicted in Potato-Sweet Potato (2006). The most Baroque of his close-up still lifes is Cauliflower (2001). The tight-packed clusters of white florets, slightly browned by time, are encased in wings of dusty green leaves, as elaborate as royal drapery furls. The gourd depicted in Marrow-Pumpkin (2002) has almost palpable weight. Dead center and spotlit against the darkness, it swells downward from a green-white stem to a brilliant orange, sculptural, Rubensesque globe. Assemblages of root vegetables are laid out like grotesque odalisques. Parsnip Turnip (2002) and Onion, Sweet Potato, Beet (2004) move toward surrealism. Moving outside the vegetable kingdom, Guild presents Large Chicken (2001), a portrait of a disquieting raw specimen, and Ham (2001), a straightforward still life of old master richness. When he depicts manmade food stuffs, the results are less successful. Free-floating baked goods, such as Iced Pastry (2002), are simply less interesting in shape and texture than organic produce. Perhaps the artifice of pastry is better suited to the Pop Art paint swirls of Wayne Thiebaud.
Guild finds more intriguing subject matter in images of stuffed, incongruously tethered birds, such as Male Chaffinch with Gold Chain (2004). At first glance charming, these paintings suggest the Victorian vogue for specimen-collecting and taxidermy, reminding us that the French term for still life is nature morte and that Audubon’s supposedly natural settings for The Birds of America were studio mock-ups for his stuffed subjects. As a youngster, Guild sketched bird and animal specimens in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. In spite of these macabre undertones, the chaffinch is delicately painted, with extended wings that make the thin chain more poignant.
The title of the gallery exhibition, “Derrick Guild: Pre-Ascension,” seemed to emphasize the earth-bound subject matter the painter has selected—and perhaps a longing to transcend it. But there is also an autobiographical allusion. Guild is leaving Scotland to spend two years in the Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic. It’s a bold move and should yield a fresh crop of forms to be explored. Whatever fruits, vegetables or creatures he encounters, it’s likely he will regard them with sensitivity, humor and an artist’s eye for shape and color. Guild has been the recipient of the Royal Scottish Academy Award on four different occasions; his work appears in many public collections in Britain and in the United States at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught fine art at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art from 1992 to 2007. Allan Stone Gallery is located at 113 East 90th Street, New York, New York 10128. Telephone (212) 987-4997. On the web at www.allanstonegallery.com