Paul Gauguin’s ham is like an archeological dig site with remnants of the porcine ancestor embedded in its terrain. The untamed progenitor of domesticated pigs, sus scrofa, or wild boar, haunts the charcuterie. Fatty streaks subdivide the flesh strata like fossilized bones in clay-colored earth or like a Paleolithic drawing in ameat cave. Pigs, who huddle in muddy wallows in fellowship with their brethren, are killed, chopped, salted and drained of blood. The legs become an edible delicacy after a period of months. “Cured” of its animal state it becomes food for humans, a symbol of both abundance and death, offered up on a round silver plate. Beside the pork sits eight small pearl onions and a glass of red wine. The still life casts a crepuscular shadow on the hot orange-yellow wall behind: the encrusted, fading residue on the glowing back wall implies demise, a radiance that foreshadows an end.
The small onions appear like speech bubbles from an imaginary mouth of the skull-shaped ham: a rhythmic tumble of bulbs that are actually repellant to animals and cause tears in humans. The involvement of onions in lachrymation – a cleansing and lubrication of the eyes – is a blurring which engenders a clearer seeing. In ancient Egypt onions were placed over the eyes of the dead; oaths were sworn on onions. “Onion” is derived from the word union or one, it has been seen as a symbol of eternity, a metaphor for uncovering layers of truth. In a basic biochemistry experiment, visible strands of DNA can be easily extracted from them: onions have more DNA than humans. A descendant of the wild allium, in the lily family, the onion is also one of the oldest cultivated vegetables.
The glass of dark liquid reflects two of the onions and a flush of red flesh. A picture within a picture, the onions appear to hover over the surface of the blackish wine like sea creatures at night – vegetal emanations of the murky deep. The drinking glass is like a petri dish, a vessel that contains transformations. The wine is a product of fermentation, of the bubbling action of bacteria on fruit: a “boiling” that hastens rot, as yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Wine is a symbol of blood, a sacrament of redemption with narcotic effects.
Glass, plate and table theatrically present evidence of the human intervention upon flora and fauna. The sloping legs of the table are a calligraphic flourish that echo the streaks of fat in the ham and indicate surplus: the fat of humanity that requires trimming. The vertical wood beams along the back wall with rhyming decorations painted alongside them reinforce the hard-won illusion of warmth, comfort and familiarity against the cold, empty vastness that constitutes the majority of the material universe. These are all structures “united to hold up the edifice” – as Gauguin wrote in his essay On Decorative Art, referring to art within the church upholding Christian ideology.
In The Ham, the animal speaks of the vegetable, which recalls its bacterial ancestry. Culture (along with all its accouterments and distractions) is the by-product of microscopic dots and dashes. As Gauguin wrote: “What are we? Daily existence. The man of instinct wonders what all this means.” The pig, the onion and the grape sit together within the circle of domestication, cultivation, and agriculture: within the limits of history. The circle demarcates a threshold beyond which chaos lurks. In this epic painting Gauguin creates the visual equivalent of an etiology and a doomsday prophecy of life on earth.
Jennifer Coates, Picnic #2, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches