Dean Home is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most accomplished still life painters with a string of notable national and international exhibitions behind him. ‘Flowing Fragrance: Dwelling in the Green Mountains’ is arguably his most beautiful exhibition to date, and importantly, demonstrates a significant shift in his practice, a career spanning over 30 solid years.
In a recent, candid interview for this catalogue, Home stated that he had ‘cleaned off what is not part of the poem’. This comment reveals much about the artist and the processes behind his new work. Home’s numerous followers will recall his previous, meticulously painted still life works. These frequently involved complex depictions of ancient Chinese artefacts including ceramic bowls, paint brushes, and various oriental talismans. Rivers, trees and mountains along with large, elegant magnolias added further historical, visual and symbolic meaning to the images. These earlier works interrogated and illustrated Chinese historical narratives, physical and metaphysical.
Nuance and simplicity of image have now replaced the grand oriental narratives. The paintings in this exhibition are beautifully evoked and resolved, as they always are, but are marked and governed by a new tranquillity. Each of these paintings compel the viewer to enjoy its presence deeply, quietly and at length. As always with Home, each image is notable for its exquisite and tender realism. These works are poised, potent and profoundly lovely.
‘Flowing Fragrance: Dwelling in the Green Mountains’ continues to reference the artist’s honest and enduring regard of chinoiserie, but much has altered. While the glazed oriental bowls remain, they are fewer in number and each is critical to the composition of the paintings. Several are adorned by landscapes. These are stylistically removed from Home’s previous landscape imagery. Looking closely at the trees, for example, one can detect a certain new stylistic form that is darker and more risky than before. The treatment of the background has also evolved. The admixture of sensitively applied washes of brown provides a burnish that adds mystery to the images. The conscious freeing up of the background from distinct subject matter creates critical negative space in the paintings. This, in turn, increases the dimensionality of the peonies and vessels providing prolonged meditative moments for the viewer. These are quieter works, just as the artist intended.
The inclusion of peonies in place of magnolias is, of course, an obvious shift in the artist’s vision. This is not a complete departure from Home’s admiration of a Chinese aesthetic, for while peonies have become native to Europe and North America, they have their origin in China and are an official emblem of that country. Peonies embody in both Asian and European cultures the essence of romance and happiness. Home has a life-long admiration of the classic techniques of Rembrandt, Vermeer, da Vinci, and Caravaggio. His is no idle observation, indeed we see in Home’s work the same impeccable skills of chiaroscuro undertaken by the ‘old masters’ of Renaissance and Baroque art.
Home, along with his wife Aileen, had the great good fortune (during the halcyon pre-Covid months of 2019) to revisit their favourite European cathedrals and galleries in Rome. The artist recalled that while enjoying Roma ‘with biscotti in hand’ he stumbled upon flower markets outside the Mercato Trionfale. He was instantly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, colour and fragrance of magnificent peonies banked in barrows and buckets. Unable to resist their allure he gathered arms full of the luminous blooms knowing they would be central to a shift in his work. Home purchased as many as he could physically hold and carried them awkwardly and somewhat self-consciously onto the metro and back to his apartment. It was from that moment that the peony supplanted the magnolia in his work resulting in what we see here, a seamless integration of iconography and artistic traditions between East and West.
It is tempting to read Home’s most recent paintings as a kind of artistic wish-fulfilment embodying an imaginary, peaceful resolution of current geopolitical global tensions. Home is adamant that this is not the case. ‘These paintings’, declared the artist ‘are outside of all that.’ They are ‘independent works that discuss the synthesis and relationship between objects and nature…the challenges presented by composition…and the integrity of flowers.’
They are all that, and more. These fine contemporary still life paintings sit confidently in the Baroque and Renaissance traditions of still life genre. The expertly painted ephemeral peonies, counterpoised against ancient ceramic vessels remind us, as the genre should, of the fleeting nature of life. Importantly, Home’s luscious paintings prompt us to spend time while we may, embracing poetry, nature, music, art, and life.
Dr Leigh Summers, Curator and Arts Writer