Table Manners

An unexpected emerging artist gives new life to still lifes at Cathedral Arts

At a time when it feels like there are video news crawlers inching across the base of your brain, and so many images you're subjected to take their meaning from war and austerity, there's something to be said for seeing things at a standstill. Deborah Beresford is here to remind us of that. At this month's Art Detour, when dozens of downtown studios and galleries kept their doors propped open for the weekend, she was easy to spot. While some artists-on-the-rise made big displays out of their efforts to comment on the news of the day -- trying to make sense of September 11 in gaudy acrylics of burning buildings or issuing cartoon commentaries on Indian rights -- Beresford made observations so quiet that they practically went unheard. This mainly had to do with the fact that she tends to paint nothing but table settings. But over the course of 20 paintings in a show now wrapping up at the Cathedral Center for the Arts, she skillfully makes the argument that sometimes the truth is surprisingly simple.

Billed by her host gallery as "an emerging artist," Beresford, it turns out, is a sixtysomething educator who took up the brush late in life. And like very few nascent painters these days, Beresford seems interested almost solely in food and drink, a motif that's been a hallmark of still-life painting since the days of Dutch masters, pewter pitchers and dead pheasants on plates. The decision to stick to this stuff seems almost aggressively traditional, but you can tell that she focuses on these benign little dining scenes with a sense of intrigue that goes beyond what's on the table. And in the end, that's what makes all the difference.

In Granny Smith and Earl Grey, for instance, she puts in front of us a Wedgwood cup half-full of tea, two empty plates and four apples between them. The apples are round, unbruised and the color of young leaves. You can see the light caught in their thin green skins, and you can tell by the color and angle that it's a natural light. There's a window not far away, probably, just outside the frame, and the lushness of Beresford's spread is just enough to make you not care what's going on outside it.

Still life with milk: Deborah Beresford's New Blue is a study in the frozen moment.
Deborah Beresford
Still life with milk: Deborah Beresford's New Blue is a study in the frozen moment.

That's the feeling that carries the show -- made even fuller by the Cathedral's quiet, meditative space -- and it can be felt everywhere. In New Blue, the distraction at hand is two red-and-green mottled Fuji apples awaiting the knife on a sky-blue tablecloth, with an empty green cup and saucer and a half-eaten bowl of cereal at the edge of the frame. In Santa Fe Lattes, it's two pint glasses of cloudy brown, covered over with shadows thrown down from nearby window mullions. In Life Is Just A... , it's a Limoges-looking bowl spilling over with ripe cherries. The menu keeps changing, in other words, but the meal is always the same. The food is all that matters, and Beresford makes that clear enough in how she treats it. She brings to the canvas an impressive attention to tiny details -- the mirrored concavity of a spoon, the passage of light through a glass vial -- but there's no effort to be photographic. And her subject matter may be plain, but her use of lively colors keeps her work from seeming dowdy. Beyond that, there is no artifice or showmanship or clever sleight of hand.

The risk of still-lifes, of course, is that it's easy for them to seem self-indulgent, even irrelevant, a Sunday exercise the painter did for herself instead of for you. But in addition to the energy she devotes to these scenes, Beresford manages to fend off those suspicions with a couple of truly human works. Her small square canvas Afternoon Delight shows us two skinny young boys, their skin as pink as peach skins, running with their mouths open through a giant blossom of water from a yard sprinkler. Even better, Nicole ups the ante with its depiction of a model, attractive but aloof, leaning on the arm of a chair with her foot jacked up in front of her, wearing a modest turquoise negligee and a colorful head wrap framing her chestnut-colored face. Both scenes are innocuous enough, but they go a long way in reassuring us that the artist can capture -- and is interested in -- more than what's going on in her dining room.

That's still not to say that there isn't something bigger at work in those food-and-drink scenes that she likes so much. For proof, have a look at Breakfast, where we face a slightly different kind of scene: It's a cluttered kitchen countertop next to an old electric range with that color approaching yellow that appliance makers first dubbed "Harvest Gold." On one burner there's a plump green tea pot, beside it a toaster, a coffee press, a mug and a plugged-in bean grinder. Not much to it. But on the face of the corrugated brown coffee can that sits at the very edge of the scene, you can faintly read the brand name painted in ribbed letters: Joy. That's when you have to decide whether the artist is being hokey, or heartfelt, or whether there really is a brand of coffee out there by that name. But at the very end of things, it's hard to deny that there is a message to be found here, and in other scenes like it. Basically, Beresford makes no secret of the fact that, no matter what's on the table, the topic is always the moment itself, and there are times when domestic moments are the best. You'll forgive an emerging artist for calling it like she sees it. So while some artists around her are cranking out pop-culture screeds or making ham-handed attempts to somehow paint the war on terror, Beresford stands on her own in reminding us that sometimes there's a lot riding on an old can of coffee.

 
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