View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Sunset Still Life
is one of twenty works produced by contemporary artists for the Cubitt Print Box in 2000. Cubitt is an artist-run gallery and studio complex in north London. In 2001 the complex moved from King’s Cross to Islington and the prints were commissioned as part of a drive to raise funds to help finance the move, and to support future exhibitions and events at the new gallery space. All the artists who contributed to the project had previously taken part in Cubitt’s programme. The portfolio was produced in an edition of 100 with twenty artists’ proofs; Tate’s copy is number sixty-six in the series.
Simpson’s contribution to the portfolio is a colour inkjet print of a photograph of a selection of Tupperware cups and bowls on a dark tabletop. A stack of orange and forest green dessert bowls is on the left. Beside the bowls cups in pastel shades of green, pink and blue stand upright singly or are stacked one in the other. A darker green cup rests on its side. In front of the cups are three yellow items: a bowl in a shallow saucer in the centre of the composition and what appears to be an egg tray on the right. The items are artfully arranged in a modern updating of classical domestic still life. They are photographed in warm direct light which emphasises the luminosity of the plastic. The image is soft-focus; as the title suggests the image was taken at sunset. The upright cups cast strong shadows on the white background behind the table.
Simpson collects second-hand Tupperware. Sunset Still Life is one of an ongoing series of photographs of the plastic kitchenware she began making in the early 1990s. Her collection was inspired in part by the way the properties of the coloured plastic change over time. As they age the items become discoloured and take on the smells of the food they have contained. This gives each mass-manufactured item a unique and individual character. She has described the objects in sensual, anthropomorphic terms, saying, ‘I see the Tupperware as part of my interest in skin. I always think of the surface of the plastic as nicotine stained skin’ (quoted in Now Wash Your Hands, p.21).
Tupperware also summons up images of simple domestic rituals. Simpson has remarked, ‘They [Tupperware items] have a powerful nostalgic quality, for me, they are reminiscent of school perhaps – I think that is why I have made use of sunlight in the photographs’ (quoted in Now Wash Your Hands, p.21). The idealised, hazy image suggests the rosy glow of childhood memories.
Simpson’s still lives are highly indebted to the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964; see Still Life, 1946, Tate N05782). Morandi obsessively made paintings of bottles, vases and other vessels in a limited palette of soft colours. Simpson’s Tupperware photographs replicate the composition, tonal range and intimacy of Morandi’s paintings. She has also made three-dimensional reconstructions of Morandi still lives with hand-made ceramics.
Norman Rosenthal, Ulrike Groos and Mark Godfrey, Jane Simpson: Fresh Fresher, London, 2002.
Maria Lind, Jane Simpson: It Only Takes a Minute (to Reach a Natural High), exhibition catalogue, Norrtälje Konsthall, 1999.
Josephine Lanyon and Rebecca Fortnum, Now Wash Your Hands, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol, 1995.