The table sits in the middle of the room, a single spotlight rakes across the surface throwing everything into stark relief. But there are more than the usual small nicks and scratches, the rough patina of use. Instead, carved in the same blond wood we have the crumple of a table cloth pushed to one end, plates of oysters and mussels, a bucket spilling fish. More fish lie on a chopping board, or slapped down on the table top. Beside the bucket a squid sloppily collapses, and a cray lies centrally on a plate, all exposed legs, underbelly and curling tail. A crab hovers at the table’s end. And on one edge, a knife balances precariously beside a partly peeled lemon, the curl of skin dangling like a shaving from a plane.
Ricky Swallow’s ‘Killing Time’ is simple, almost mundane. While taking its cue from the still life tradition, it manages to remain casual, seeming neither overly staged nor obscurely symbolic. For those who know their fish there’s plenty of variety, but no particular code or hierarchy to disentangle. There is, if you like, no real lesson here. Each carved fish simply represents itself, as one of a list of creatures Swallow can remember killing. At one end of the table we even find the crumpled and folded page on which Swallow listed them. However these little details are not obvious. Instead they are part of the story that surrounds the piece, that adds a biographical overlay to what might otherwise slide into an obscure display of craftsmanship. With the addition of the small set of references (revealed in Justin Paton’s catalogue essay), the play of the work’s title shifts registers, and the work opens up.
The solidity of the piece, the carving out of each fleetingly remembered catch, fixes something long gone, moves in to recover it. In the form of the ‘still life’ each of these creatures is caught again, fixed in that moment when it is only just dead. But the recapture is itself the result of a long drawn out struggle. For the piece to work – and it does – the fish, crustaceans, and shell fish have to end up looking almost alive. The fact that this work is clearly the result of an extended labour, pushes the title of the work even further. Here there is an oscillation between the time of memory and the time of making, between life and death. But also that moment of hesitation between the two – that moment just before seafood slips from glistening freshness to dull decay.
It is the kind of issue that might more frequently be discussed in relation to photography, these days. But here we do not have the easy snap of the catch proudly dangled before the instamatic, or even the wooden poses of old sepia. Instead, memory becomes the stuff that remains after time and life have worn everything else away, coaxed out of a solid block of wood, one fine curled shaving at a time.