The broad, rich paintings of Janet Stayton are a present-day paean to the Mediterranean. They open like shuttered windows onto their still life scenes, unfolding towards the edge of the canvas as busy interior spaces blur into fringe street scenes, Roman colonnades, and nocturnal waterfronts.
For over ten years now she has been producing her large-scale canvases in a secluded workshop at the heart of Pietrasanta, Tuscany. The local marble has made the commune a popular refuge for sculptors through the centuries, with numerous stone-carvers and bronze casters setting up shop in the middle of town. Stayton’s own studio space nestles in among the old sculptors’ workshops. Clean, white-walled, industrial, it is in total contrast to the luminous six-foot paintings that hang from its walls in states of near completion; a gallery of singing colour amid the cadaverous white of marble blocks and dust-filled yards.
Stayton’s paintings are to Tuscany what Matisse gave to the Provençal communes of Nice and Vence, just off the glistening Côte d’Azur. Stayton has inherited much from the French giant: the perspectival shifts, as table tops spill into rooms, roll out through windows into the vistas beyond. Each scene is framed multiply, drawing the eye around and through the depth of the painting: the edge of the table, a handsome rectangle of colour, sets the main stage; but behind, window frames, portico doors that lead into cobbled streets, curtains and distant cloisters all hint at a world of Tuscan delights beyond.
Matisse’s own still lifes, populated with distinct objects of equal presence, often painted in hot, flat colour, posed a simple but profound question: what is the subject of this work? The conch shell or the wine bottle? The coffee pot or the seated nude? It is a question that has delighted Stayton, and which she revisits with renewed excitement, tempting our gaze past the immediately colourful into the mysterious margins and their outer world.
Despite their similarity, however, these paintings are not mere pastiche of Matisse. Fundamental differences are here to be found, notably in Stayton’s palette. Where Matisse often favoured the near-primary – the crimson reds, the suitably azure blues – Stayton’s preferences are for the faintly unfamiliar: a kind of perfumed blue that blends into lavenders and violets, reds that are plum or dark pink, and a lemon yellow with the citric tang of an post-prandial shot of limoncello. ‘Sometimes I feel a colour shining behind my eyes’, she says, ‘ready to illuminate a painting…’ In particular, Stayton uses white for outline, often for objects in the periphery, lending nocturnal vignettes a surreal, quicksilver stillness. The paint itself is applied in a variety of thicknesses and surfaces: dry and textured to the fore, often with sgraffito marks dragged through with the tip of a brush; looser in the backgrounds, with a kind of mosaicism that recalls the Post-Impressionist work of Bonnard and his fellow ‘Nabis’ painters.
The Italian for still life – a phrase Stayton is certainly familiar with – is ‘Natura Morta’; literally translated, ‘Dead Nature’. There is nothing morbid about Stayton’s interiors, nothing lifeless about her arrangements of objects, or her illusory allusions to nearby Mediterranean streets and seascapes. Though often devoid of people, her still life canvases manage to radiate colour and life, with all the human suggestion of the laid table, the prepared fruit, the wine and fish awaiting us in a Tuscan reverie of her imagining.