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Still Life

Triumphant Carrot: The Persistence of Still Life, 2010

Robert Arndt, Eric Cameron, James Carl, Gerald Ferguson, Chris Hanson & Hendrika Sonnenberg, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Ceal Floyer, Rodney Graham, Jay Isaac, Elad Lassry, Evan Lee, Arvo Leo, Kelly Lycan, Liz Magor, Kelly Mark, Damian Moppett, Ron Moppett, Brad Phillips, Jayce Salloum, Erica Stocking, Zin Taylor, Ron Tran, Lesley Vance, Jeff Wall, Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky, and Sam Taylor-Wood

Writing on the persistence of genres in contemporary art, Thomas Crow asks, “How can that archaic-sounding concept be important anymore for understanding the condition of art?”1 The division and hierarchical ordering of painting into genres is a system that developed from literary criticism in the 1600s, setting academic standards for the next three centuries. Listed in order of importance, history painting, portraiture, landscape, and still life were the principle distinctions, with the last three commonly referred to as the petit genres. Further hierarchies played out within each category: Subjects—historical, literary or religious—were ranked, or the stature of individuals portrayed was measured. In landscapes, those with figures were considered more important than those without, while those in which figures interacted stood above those in which they didn’t; but in still life, the vanitas took precedent. The purpose of all this ranking was to demarcate the level of intellectual pursuit and mark a higher order of scholarship that moved beyond replication and craft to research and mastery of a subject. In the mid-nineteenth century, significant challenges to this order arose from the avant-garde, who directed their intellectual ambitions into representations reflecting contemporary life. In reference to the work of the French painter Courbet, Crow states, “from Courbet forward, the claim is made—and increasingly accepted—that the greater alertness, breadth of comprehension and potential for psychological transformation in the observer will be demanded by subjects once deemed intrinsically inferior to history.”2 This inversion, from the exalted into the ordinary, mainly occurred in landscape and portraiture, and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that still life trumped all the other genres.

Margrit Rowell, like Crow, links the changing importance of still life to the development of the avant-garde; she cites Cézanne as a catalyst and claims that still life’s prominence was solidified with Cubism. In trying to render life static, Cézanne’s work established a paradox particular to his genre—that nothing is still. Cézanne, like Picasso and Braque who followed him, attempted to depict space, colour, and form on one surface to imply multiple planes that connote both instability and the passing of time. He used the everyday object set in a simple scene as a means of contemplating form and challenging perception; this ultimately places conceptual worth outside subject matter. This endeavor to empty still life of its subject matter is a history that leads, in part, to objects and settings being dispensed with altogether, prioritizing abstract art as the highest form of intellectual, moral, and spiritual pursuit: But this account writes the importance of representation and the familiar out of that history.

Rowell sees still lifes as fiction, which, “although they appear accessible, are actually inaccessible, fictional, created; ideal as opposed to the real.”4 In still life, an object’s significance doesn’t have to illustrate a deeper meaning, but it does have to be representational and act as a place of identification: the humble objects and scenes common to still life are necessarily offered as a point of engagement—a way into the artist’s process and intent, whether narrative or formal. On the other hand, still life has always been used as a formal exercise to examine composition, material, colour, and other such aesthetic choices. A pared-down definition could read: “a representation of inanimate objects composed in an artificial environment.” The limited properties of this genre make it perfect for practicing technique. But what moved it into the realm of the avant-garde and keeps it relevant today is that still life can be used for formal study as well as read for the specificity of its subject and object significance. It teeters between form and content, but no matter which way it leans it still holds its basic properties. A continued embrace of formal convention in still life seems to go against avant-garde tendencies to forge the new by breaking with tradition, yet the formal tradition of still life has persevered. The basic conventions of the genre appear to be ideally suited for avant-garde pursuits, offering the parameters for formal investigation, as well as providing a ground from which to rethink the way images and objects are read.

Still life continues to resonate. It persists in contemporary art and in how that art is conceived, produced, and presented. Outside of the vanitas, with its concatenation of oddities, from human and animal skulls to texts ruminating on death’s relation to the material realm, the history of still life is most commonly filled with innocuous domestic objects from empty bottles to kitchen utensils, and this is exactly why it was relegated to the lowest order. In contemporary terms, this use of the domestic— the common, mundane, and everyday—is as much a commanding subject as it is a formal conceit. Consequently, the use and selection of seemingly ordinary objects persists, whether meaning derives from the decision to merely depict everyday objects or from the fact that these common things are depicted as symbols. A represented object always means something, but, when the composing of typical objects in a constructed setting is bracketed within the genre of still life, what is added in its continued connection to historic terms and aesthetic convention?

The group exhibition Triumphant Carrot: the Persistence of Still Life, which includes fifty works by thirty artists, explicitly and formally addresses this question. The number of artists and works seems small in relation to the subject—still life’s history, specifically in the development of the avant-garde yet it is large for the exhibition spaces of the Contemporary Art Gallery. This relatively large selection of works is intended to reflect this genre’s continued importance in current art production and discourse, and is conceptually tied to the basic formal principles of still life. Each of the petit genres carries its clichés, but they seem to register most strongly within still life and as such, were a central point of interest in selecting the works for this exhibition. Many of the pieces were chosen because they stick closely to the formal conventions and typical subject matter of still life. There is an intended repetition of the basic principles of the genre: objects placed in a commonplace setting, on a table top, in a nondescript interior.

As a theme, still life is more tied to these formal conventions than it is to one over-arching meaning. Its bond with the everyday and the domestic is implicit, but what can be drawn from the consistent representation of the objects in this domain? Even within the tight frame of still life, there is no directed course of investigation and no real need to define a solid line that connects the works in the exhibition, beyond the generalizations of the genre. Yet there are links, and since the assembled items typically represented in the still life are central to its continued relevance and to the development of the avant-garde, I will articulate some common tenets in the works by associating meaning with objects—objects whose meanings were codified in the seventeenth century, through still life. And although these objects aren’t necessarily represented in the individual works, they are used to express and loosely categorize common subjects, references, and modes of engagement.

CARROTS

The first part of the exhibition title appropriates a title from one of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s photographs from their Équilibres Series  made in the mid-1980s and recently published as a book. The triumph of the carrot is linked to the success of still life, but also captures a wit that runs through many of the works in this show. This incorporation and reduction of the terms of still life, work with a subject and form that are cliché filled and somewhat oversaturated and can produce a comic effect: Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky place a wine bottle on a skull, as if jokingly taunting the vanitas, and Ron Tran cannily and concisely turns the average shopping-mall portrait studio into a still life scene. In this series of photographs Tran has used props from the portrait studio to compose still lifes, turning an ornate couch on its side then propping it up with a bouquet of flowers; in another photo he has balanced an overturned chair with a guitar and a tire on a mountain of velvety black fabric. It is easy and enjoyable to imagine the way that many of the objects, particularly the tire, have been  used to flesh out the characters of the sitters, to whom Tran’s configurations read like epigrams. In his single-channel video, A Line Meant in Passing, Robert Arndt presents a bizarre array of objects, from a white and yellow porcelain monkey’s head to an antique, silver and fabric head compress. The strange assemblage of objects moves slowly across the screen as the camera seems to pan along an unending table of curios. The absurdity lies not only in the selection of objects, but also in the sheer number of them and the manner in which they’re presented, as if on a conveyer belt, creating a constant detachment and reattachment to the mix of oddities as they pass in and out of the frame.

FLOWERS

Another common connection between many of the works is a re-posing of the social and commercial way objects are distributed, collected, and displayed. I see flowers, an item that rivals fruit as one of still life’s most typical subjects, as a symbol for the distribution of objects, as well as their beauty and diversity, and as a symbol that reflects commerce as an invention and representation of desire. This is expressed in the scale of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s flowers as well as in his use of standard advertising materials, high gloss laminate prints, and grey metal frames. Feldmann commonly searches out the cliché.  For his three works in this exhibition, he uses a close-up of a single flower in bloom, each a different blossom in the same tightly cropped composition. The images are so familiar; we’ve seen each of these flowers a hundred times, on greeting cards, as calendars, and in advertisements. As images, they carry a sentimentality that more aptly spills into the realm of kitsch, and which Feldmann has captured and rendered as caricature by using a scale that is out of proportion. The works loom over the viewer, standing more than six feet high, in vibrant colours in an overly glossy laminate. Elad Lassry may be the artist who most consistently and overtly mixes the language of still life with that of advertising. Lipstick (2009)  is emblematic of Lassry’s ability to stage and contain the terms of still life through an exaggeratedly formal presentation—each lipstick rests on its own individual pedestal and is contained by a frame that is in the same concentrated emerald green lacquer as the bases. Similarly, Kelly Lycan, in NYC Roof Top Objects (1992/2009), exercises a fascination with the terms of display and how presentation defines meaning, determines value, and qualifies aesthetic interest. For this video, she clips together photographs of all the objects she found on a New York City apartment-building roof top, displaying them on a plywood stage she also found there. Ceal Floyer gathers items around her too, in Helix (2006), but here they are chosen using a formula: Each item selected must fit into one of the twenty-eight varying holes of a circular helix template, so even though there is randomness to the choice of objects, there is, in addition, a calculated rigidity that determines their order and thus limits the terms of their display. Presetting limitations is also part of Erica Stocking’s Dead Space/Living Room (2010), for which she built a miniature living space underneath the stairwell in the CAG’s front entrance, using only material she found in the gallery. The room looks like a display suite, with a throw rug, once a mop head, precisely placed over an ottoman made from a packing blanket, some scraps of wood, and metal braces. She also made lamps, which light up, from a plastic funnel and a vacuum-bag filter; the sofa and chair she made are solid enough to sit on, yet the mise en scene she constructed is less for use than it is about display—getting the room to look just right with the most basic of materials and simplest means. In Jeff Wall’s Florist’s Shop Window, Vancouver (2008), the supplies for display are the pictured material. As the title establishes, the work is a photograph of a florist’s shop, but there are no flowers in the window, only the wares of display (an empty ceramic pot, netting, glass vases, a large box of plastic wrapping, and some brown paper). Wall has not staged this picture, but framed it. There are no flowers luring the shoppers in or enticing them to consume, just the lackluster arrangement of florists’ tools, which define the terms of display and are conveyed by Wall through vacancy and the concealment of the primary objects — flowers– typically the items to be represented.

SKULLS

Skulls were typical in the vanitas—paintings that included objects of wealth and power, from kingly crowns to world maps, and that showed the desire to conquer the world.5 The vanitas began during the late Middle Ages with the development of the merchant class in the West. The genre, a criticism of growing capitalist structures, was used to warn against the accumulation of goods as being a meaningless endeavour. Match (1981–86), by Ron Moppet, incorporates some of those early signifiers of vanity, a pearl necklace, pipes, and an overturned bust, as well as a tool of his trade—a paint brush. These items are stacked amongst painted cut-out forms, including a silhouette of a man smoking a pipe, mounted on a sealed desk drawer elevated by two blocks of wood. There is contradiction in the evolution of the vanitas; as it developed, the paintings themselves became an instance of the luxury goods they critiqued.6 The cheap string of plastic pearls, stacked drugstore pipes, and found materials in Ron Moppett’s sculpture seem counter to the lushness of the mid-seventeenth century vanitas, but it still registers as criticism of an accumulation of goods. In the late twentieth century, Match can be read in connection to mass production, suggesting not just that one’s relationship to the goods is transitory, but also that life itself may be compared to the quality of these goods. Sam Taylor Wood’s A Little Death (2002) places a dead hare and lone peach on a dark wood table in an otherwise empty room: using a reduced number of objects emphasizes the dead animal portrayed. Historically, this emphasis might have represented a triumphant demonstration of our dominance over all other animals,7 but in Taylor Wood’s graphically detailed time-lapse video of the still life scene decaying over one month, it seems to convey vulnerability rather than strength. A Little Death can be read like a skull in the vanitas, which is intended to shatter illusions more than to propagate them. The skull is a lament for the fleeting nature of all things, but it is also the object that remains after death. It becomes material, an object. Regardless of what the skull symbolizes, as a thing it has longevity. Gerald Ferguson’s cast-iron fruit pieces capture this paradox of transience and permanence, rendering the apple, a perishable item, in solid iron, turning its tender and easily bruised skin as well as the preciousness of the artwork, into an indestructible object. This iron apple has been used for years by its rightful owner as a doorstop—with no mark of damage; it seems to be more like an object that could do damage. The transformation of fruit into a not-perishable material has become a quotidian desire—from the still life painting to the bowl of plastic fruit. Fabricated fruit bowls are now readily available in glass, wood, and ceramic, and sit on countless kitchen tables. Kelly Mark has reversed this equation, turning the quotidian mass-produced wooden-fruit bowl into a drawing. Mark has covered the entire surface of  such a bowl, as well as the small side table it sits on, in pencil. The graphite has a dual effect: It simultaneously substracts the colour of the fruit, turning it grey, and gives it a new bright sheen. She has brought the object into the realm of art, but taken away its originally intended aesthetic. Through the process of drawing it (covering it in graphite) she has erased it from its everydayness.

BOOKS

In One Month of Reading in the Mirror (2007), Brad Phillips depicted all the books he read in a month (a stack of Patricia Highsmith novels), which he placed in front of a mirror. This record of the past speaks to the tropes of representation—from personal narratives that are elaborated by the quantity of things, or are elaborated as things—to the process of accumulating and forming attachments to things, which resists the sentimental but also leans toward it. In another work, Phillips twists sentimentality by painting the back of a standard eight-by-ten–inch standing frame which, according to Phillips, contains a portrait of his father, and titling the work Dead Beat Dad (2007). This is an image Phillips has painted serially—at least eight times. In flipping the portrait, Phillips distances himself from his father, but the emotional tie lingers in his representation of his father who, although not portrayed, is rendered meticulously in a deep and forlorn darkness. There are similar romantic signifiers in Liz Magor’s work, but she literally empties them: discarded candy wrappers, a silver tray with nothing left on it but cigarette butts, a well-used coffee table with a dead seagull. Magor’s cast and stacked objects can be read as remainders of some occurrence. Although this occurrence is seemingly mundane, the anomalous layering of the objects and the objects themselves read like the introduction to a long novel, as the significance of each successive item unfolds like a chapter. In Red Stripe (2009) and Bread and Second Loaf Salt (2009), Zin Taylor arranges bread and pieces of raw lumber into concisely constructed compositions, to literary effect. These photographs are part of The Bakery of Blok and The Three Forms of Unit (1st arrangement), a larger installation where Taylor used bread making—a process requiring only basic ingredients and techniques—as a metaphor for making sculpture. The ingredients here are the various media that work to compose a narrative, and the technique involves humourous juxtapositions that read like the workings of an alchemist, told by a poet.

MIRRORS

Many of the works in Triumphant Carrot use the conventions of still life to reference their own making and the process of making in general. As such, they test what a creative gesture with cultural consequence might be. The mirror seems to aptly symbolize this self-reflection and the examination of one’s own artistic practice. Direct references to process appear in the work of Fishcli and Weiss, Rodney Graham, Damian Moppett, and Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg (in the representations of their studios), but also in much of the other work in the exhibition. Fischli and Weiss introduce a precarious balance into the equation. There is definite whimsy at work in their Équilbres, which poke fun at the term “still life” by presenting a balancing act whose instability could topple it in an instant. The highly composed assemblage of objects is anything but perfunctory, and immediately draws attention to the constructed nature of the still life. The work comprises 140 photographs produced in their studio, mainly using the material at hand, and there is no chance of the viewer misconstruing this as anything but a decidedly constituted scene. The maker’s hand—the artist—is offered for our consideration in a reflection on the process of making.

References to the artist and the clichés of art making are also seen in Rodney Graham’s photograph of a decayed and dry bouquet of flowers in his painting studio. In the tightly composed image, the flowers are placed in the exact centre of the frame, reading counter to the disarray of the tabletop, with its accumulation of paint drops and discarded material. The tight frame and the mess draw attention to the artist as maker, acting like a document of his studio, offering a glimpse into his process, and suggesting something personal. Damian Moppett’s painting Candle (London 2010) (2010), also references the studio: a reproduction of an earlier photograph from his Impure Systems photographic series of 1994, this is the first of many paintings that use the same image at its base—a composed, but quick assemblage of material randomly accumulated on a table. Like this particular painting, much of D. Moppett’s work refers to its making through a repetition that rearticulates still life conventions—but under a veil of process, form, and practice that is tied to personal references and is always changing in medium, style, and form.

CANDLES

Burnt candles were used in early still life to symbolize transience: the movement or end of either time or body. They were typical of the vanitas, used as one of many signifiers to mark time passing, symbolize a journey’s end, or show that time has run out in a person’s life.8 Jayce Salloum’s photographic collage, Flowers (1999–2010), records his travels over eleven years—from a research trip to Afghanistan to snapshots taken in his garden. The various flowers, often a solitary shot of one blossom, are clustered together, expanding out from a corner, forming a colourful and rich diary that accumulates foliage and bloomage as the artist continues to forge visual bonds with distant and fraught regions of the world. Arvo Leo’s postcard collage is rooted in the archetypal language of still life composition. With no particular intention in mind, the artist bought three identical postcards of a Vincent Van Gogh sunflower still life at the Van Gogh Museum and took them to Calcutta. Once in India, he found a selection of postcards, from a Bombay photo studio, that showed a still life of roses with the same scale and composition as the Dutch sunflowers. Leo then cut out the individual rose blooms to cover the sunflowers. It took two and a half rose postcards to fully replace the sunflowers on one Van Gogh postcard, and several weeks to have the postcards mailed to Holland. The subject and composition of the still life remained almost fixed, and Leo articulated this stasis with time and distance. For Eric Cameron, each layer of the 1248 coats of gesso covering the Japanese beer can in Beer Can-Can (1248) (1997–), marks time, so that applying the gesso is only one part of a larger process that involves selecting the object, recording each layer, tracking the duration of the making of the piece, and determining when to stop the process. Hanson and Sonnenberg, in a similar manner, mark moments in time through snapshots of temporary sculptures made from plaster and fruit in a limitless variety of combinations.These are unceremoniously photographed in their studio and the images trimmed to form layered collages that all have the same basic elements and are innocuously titled Fruit Bowls (1999).

RUBBER BANDS

Making a still life will always be a formal exercise—one that intentionally addresses the relations between objects and representation, and reflects the way images and objects move. Lesley Vance  and Jay Isaac both start with subjects typical to the genre and gently move that representation into abstraction. Their work rests in the realm of still life, although it reinvents still life’s formal properties, rather than its reading. Evan Lee also alters the genre’s basic formal elements through a distortion of space. He uses a flatbed scanner as the setting for his still lifes. With this technique, he flattens space while managing to render a field of darkness that seems to stretch meters into the background; the resulting trompe l’oeil not only tricks the viewer but also adheres to a basic principle of the genre. James Carl’s Thing’s End (2008), in a like manner, commands a double take; in fact even with a second look, it is impossible to tell that the nearly 880 rubber bands aren’t real. The only way to recognize that they’re representations is to read the label or touch one. Carl is known for his meticulously rendered sculptures of common objects, at times made in excessive amounts, but what is particularly striking in the sheer diversity of the types of bands, varying in width, colour, age, and material, is that each band is unique, yet still defined by the basic formal principles of all rubber bands.

THINGS

Each of the works in the exhibition could traverse the object categories I have outlined above. Arndt’s video may more aptly sit under the heading “Flowers,” as many of the objects represented were sourced from consumer websites, or it could fit under “Skulls,” linked to the central ideas of the vanitas. Graham’s Dead Flowers could easily be categorized under “Skulls,” Taylor Wood’s work under “Candle” and Cameron’s under “Rubber Bands.” I have used this system of categorization partly because iconography was integral to early still life, but even then, the meaning of the objects wasn’t definitive. Flowers could be symbols of vanity or of death, as their beauty would soon wither away.9 Skulls, books, clocks, candles, a wine glass on its side, and soap bubbles were all used to symbolize transience.10 More specifically, mussels or lobsters alluded to Jesus’ resurrection, and grapes symbolized the Eucharist.11 And so my intention has been to capture the importance of the object in the still life genre by referencing a transitory system of meaning and association, as well as to establish the importance of our relation to the quotidian object and, as such, to its representation. Sven Lütticken begins his discussion of Breton and Duchamp by stating, “In modern art, the increasing resemblance of art objects to everyday objects raised the threat of eroding of any real difference between works of art and other things.” 12 Lütticken isn’t necessarily concerned about an erosion, but is interested in what it means to signal the difference of the artwork from other things. Still life typically transforms the everyday object into art, but what is the use value in defining this difference? Lütticken goes on, “If we grant that a work of art is both more and less than other types of things, this should not be regarded as an incentive to exacerbate and fetishize those differences, but rather as a point of departure for analyzing the complex interrelationships of artworks with these other things—and for examining certain works of art as problematizing and transforming this very relationship.” The genre of still life, in contemporary terms, is a good place to continue this conversation in order to examine how we define art—within or outside of the context of everyday life—and how we see it existing within or outside of economic and social systems.

Intellectual investment in the terms of still life has equalled an elevation of its status, and in the early part of the twentieth century, still life was advanced mainly through formal investigation. Prefiguring Crow, Norman Bryson, in his definitive text on the subject, queries why still life hasn’t entered the discourse of art criticism. He states that “perhaps as the genre at the furthest remove from narrative, it is the hardest for critical discourse to reach.”13 Bryson’s history doesn’t venture past the nineteenth century, and thus doesn’t investigate the formal concerns of Cézanne or the Cubists, but it does articulate a lack in  critical discourse in the history of the genre—one that I think is now readily visible. What this quote by Bryson signifies to me is a clear potential to engage with contemporary still life in a manner that runs deeper than the surface of the picture plane to activate an investigation of the substantive relations between personalized narratives, aesthetic exploration, and our production, accumulation, and association to objects. Jenifer Papararo

1 Thomas Crow, “The Simple Life: Pastoralism and the Persistence of Genre in Recent Art,” in Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1996, 173.

2. Crow, “The Simple Life,” 174.

3. Margit Rowell, essay in the catalogue for the art exhibition of the same name, Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (New York City: Museum of Modern Art, 1997).

4. Rowell, Objects of Desire, 24.

5. Norbert Schneider, Still Life: Still Life Painting in the Early Modern Period. (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2009), 86.

6. Schneider, Still Life, 79.

7. Schneider, 60.

8. Schneider, 77 and 86.

9. Schneider 81.

10. Schneider 81–82.

11. Schneider, 116.

12.Sven Lütticken, “Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball and Duchamp’s Carrot,” E-Flux Journal. Issue 15, (April 2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/112.

Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1990)9.

Published as part of Still Life available at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. http://www.contemporaryartgallery.ca

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