Stieg Pers­son
The Frag­o­nard Room

3rd July – 9th August 2014
Anna Schwartz Gallery

Stieg Persson’s paint­ings in The Frag­o­nard Room’ sug­gest a shift in con­tem­po­rary hier­ar­chies of cul­ture, and taste” as an iden­ti­fy­ing fac­tor of class.

Jean-Hon­oré Frag­o­nard, whose works in the Frick col­lec­tion (spurned by Louis XV’s mis­tress, the Comt­ess du Bar­ry, for whom they were com­mis­sioned at the height of the artist’s vogue), has come to be syn­ony­mous with the maligned peri­od of Roco­co, French paint­ing of the pre-rev­o­lu­tion aris­toc­ra­cy. Works by Rococo’s mas­ters have con­tin­ued to be seen as kitsch, deca­dent, effete and in bad taste; a trend that end­ed with the exe­cu­tion or exile of its patrons. It is lit­tle recalled that Frag­o­nard him­self was pro­tect­ed from the same fate by one of the revolution’s great­est artists, Jacques-Louis David – one of the master’s own protégés.

The var­ied and com­plex his­to­ry of the moment of Roco­co, mir­rored in the con­vo­lut­ed sto­ry of the paint­ings that came to give Frick’s Frag­o­nard Room its defin­ing fea­tures, are re-deployed by Pers­son in a series of works that inves­ti­gate con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels in changes of taste and the desire for deca­dence as a polit­i­cal and social drive.

Ele­ments of the gram­mar of Roco­co are adopt­ed by Pers­son as a means to address the social cur­ren­cy of lux­u­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the growth in pop­u­lar esteem of high-end cui­sine. Tak­en as a cri­tique of the con­tem­po­rary obses­sion with food, these works trace a looped and tan­gled pic­ture of food’s rise in social con­scious­ness into a more gen­er­al under­stand­ing of how taste’ is acquired, and by whom. As con­tem­po­rary soci­ety places greater sig­nif­i­cance on the con­nois­seur­ship of eat­ing, it does so in lieu of engage­ment with cul­ture as it is tra­di­tion­al­ly con­ceived: music, the­atre, lit­er­a­ture and art.

Persson’s works, splic­ing var­ied reg­is­ters of paint­ing togeth­er as if by col­lage, present the objects of cur­rent food­ie affec­tion on top of quo­ta­tions of Roco­co paint­ing and gild­ed tag­ging that the artist has noticed around Melbourne’s south-east­ern sub­urbs. Vignettes of land­scape after Frag­o­nard, Wat­teau and Bouch­er are posi­tioned behind the spe­cial­ties of Monarch Cakes in St Kil­da, con­flat­ing two insti­tu­tions’ of visu­al and gus­ta­to­ry delight. A Mon­key eat­ing Quinoa recalls the sin­gerie fash­ion of includ­ing anthro­po­mor­phised pri­mates in dec­o­ra­tive and fine art, as well as to the ori­gins of the super­foods’ sold in the often-obliv­i­ous West. Oys­ters on the half-shell are emblem­at­ic of Roco­co, whose very name derives from rocaille, fan­ci­ful arti­fi­cial shell or rock gardens.

Persson’s use of found’ tag­ging from the city’s wealthy areas is again a provo­ca­tion to dis­cus­sion of Australia’s dis­com­fort with its own non-class­less soci­ety: these forms are appro­pri­at­ed from what are like­ly to be the nar­cis­sis­tic pur­suits of well-to-do delin­quents’. But it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish the par­tic­u­lar type of class that is for­mu­lat­ed here: not one that is based on wealth, but rather on taste. Such taste is fur­ther con­di­tioned by gen­er­a­tion, and loca­tion; Mel­bourne being a city that cel­e­brates street art as much as it does food.

If the ornate Roco­co ges­tures and shapes were thrown out in favour of aus­tere, demo­c­ra­t­ic and moral­ly upright Neo-clas­si­cal bour­geois val­ues, con­tem­po­rary food cul­ture shows a slide in the oppo­site direc­tion: the con­ven­tion­al feed­back loop of low aes­thet­ic tak­en up by the elite is reversed by the trend of the mid­dle-class mass aping the food-based rit­u­als of the upper class. Through real­i­ty TV fran­chis­es and arti­sanal local every­thing, the dis­pos­able lux­u­ry of fine food has become the pri­or­i­ty for Aus­tralians’ dis­pos­able income. Persson’s satire may take cues from the prints of Hog­a­rth or George Cruick­shank, but not with­out some self-reflec­tion on com­plic­i­ty: in Sig­na­ture Dish­es, Pers­son paints in minia­ture the dish­es that have made local chefs famous (Gold­en Fields’ New Eng­land lob­ster roll; Tetsuya’s con­fit of ocean trout) – all dish­es that the artist has eat­en himself.

The sin­gu­lar expe­ri­ence of sen­sa­tion (of flavour or oth­er­wise) is at the core of Rococo’s empha­sis on touch, and on the visu­al­i­sa­tion of touch in art. In Persson’s works, sen­sa­tion is made vis­i­ble in the con­cen­tric cir­cles of gra­dat­ed colour that push sin­gle cof­fee beans and mac­arons toward the view­er, out of the sur­face of the can­vas. These geo­met­ric motifs, recall­ing rad­i­cal move­ments in Euro­pean Pop art of the 60s, crash into car­toon cloud-forms in sug­ary tones that could be Pop, or 19th-Cen­tu­ry hand-coloured etch­ings, or Pierre Her­mé brand­ing. But clouds return these works to the realm of Roco­co, whose obses­sion with touch was matched only for an insis­tent demand for the sky, with char­ac­ters thrown into the air with com­plete dis­re­gard for grav­i­ty, despite slav­ish devo­tion to sur­face texture.

If Roco­co taste defied the laws of physics for the sake of sen­sa­tion, today’s plea­sure in lux­u­ry appears to defy the laws of eco­nom­ics. The con­ven­tion­al under­stand­ing of lux­u­ry being tied to exclu­siv­i­ty is no longer valid; con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion dri­ving the mar­ket for indus­tri­al­ly-pro­duced McCafé mac­arons. And as mol­e­c­u­lar gas­tron­o­my has become an expe­ri­en­tial art form’ avail­able only to the wealth­i­est, art itself has remained demo­c­ra­t­ic and freely acces­si­ble, for those who remem­ber it.

Images

Stieg Pers­son

Unti­tled 2, 2014
Ink on paper
10070 cm, 11383 cm (framed)

Stieg Pers­son

Altocu­mu­lus, 2014
oil on linen
153127 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Monarch Cakes, 2014
Oil on linen
122112 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Au naturel, 2013
Oil on linen
5246 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Ethiopi­an Sidamo and macarons, 2014
oil on linen
112112 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Asian Style, 2013
Oil on linen
5246 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Cumu­lus, 2014
oil on linen
153127 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Rab­bits with Prunes, 2013
oil on linen
122112 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Guatemala San­ta Felisa and macarons, 2014
oil on linen
122112 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Phi­los­o­phy of Indi­vid­u­al­ism with Goji Berries, 2013
oil on linen
187227 cm
Pho­to: Chris­t­ian Capurro

Stieg Pers­son

Unti­tled 5, 2014
Ink on paper
10070 cm, 11383 cm (framed)

Stieg Pers­son

Pra­da, 2012
oil on linen
5146 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Unti­tled 4, 2014
Ink on paper
10070 cm, 11383 cm (framed)

Stieg Pers­son

Unti­tled 3, 2014
Ink on paper
10070 cm, 11383 cm (framed)

Stieg Pers­son

Aro­mather­a­py, 2013
oil on linen
122122 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Sig­na­ture Dishes, 2014
Oil on linen
183229 cm

Stieg Pers­son

Unti­tled 1, 2014
ink on paper
11383 cm (framed)