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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Peculiar Still Lifes

...Next, Steve Strode
I love'em. I've even painted quite a few. Strange, weird, funny, peculiar, odd, however you describe them, still-lifes need not be boring. Let's face it, if you look, down through the annuls of art history, probably about 95 percent of all painted still-lifes are so tiredly mundane as to justify the old saying, "if you've seen one, you've seen them all." One of the reasons still-lifes seem so universally boring involves why artist paint them in the first place--to show off. That is, when you have as your subject objects that never move, seldom change much from day to day, manifest interesting colors and textures, and can be easily arranged in an almost infinite number of compositional arrays, the artist is free to concentrate on the painting's technical aspects to the exclusion of all else. In most cases, the objects mean little. They may be quite attractive, even beautiful, but they are, in the final analysis simply meaningless shapes.

Vanitas Still Life, 1625, Pieter Claesz
BUT...they need not be. Perhaps the earliest "peculiar" still-lifes were those concocted by the Dutch in the 17th century, which they called "vanitas" still lifes. For the first time, the objects had meaning beyond their simple existence. In this case, it was a matter of life and death--burned out candles, wilted flowers, crude time pieces, over-ripe (or just plain rotten) fruit, and human skulls--always human skulls. Morbid, yes, but never boring...well, perhaps after a time, in that they painted so damned many of them.

A Pair of Shoes, 1887, Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh's Chair,
1888, Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh had a penchant for the peculiar. Or maybe it was sheer boredom and limited finances as he sat shivering in his tiny, frigid, rented room in Arles, contemplating his meager surroundings--a bed, a chair, his shoes... He painted them. No artists had ever painted an empty bed before, or a nearly vacant chair with only a pipe, some crumpled paper, and a bit of tobacco. His A Pair of Shoes (above) are surprisingly naturalistic. The fact is, he painted shoes on at least five occasions. Actually, counting his many flowers, Vincent painted as many or more still-lifes as he did landscapes. And though many are quite traditional in terms of content, on several occasions his choice of objects might have raised a few eyebrows in his day.

I'm not sure just what kind of statement the painter here may have been trying to make, but it is either lost, or so obscure as to convey little more than shock value.
Of course today, the peculiar still-life is more often the bailiwick of photographers than painters. Painting a really odd assortment of objects takes no small amount of commitment and confident faith in their validity on the part of the painter as to the investment of time and supplies. The photographer, especially in today's digital age, makes no such investment. Thus, he or she feels free to experiment to a far greater degree. Yet, by the same token, the juxtaposition of the unexpected among the mundane can sometimes become jarring, as meaningless as it is silly.

Two Cats Playing with Fish, ca. 1708, Jan van Kessel
For painters today, often the most valid goal in rendering the peculiar still-life is one of humor. We can always use more humor. Sometimes it may seem harsh, sometimes uproariously funny, sometimes just gently amusing. Steve Strode's ...Next (top) fits somewhere in between one of those categories, or perhaps in a niche all its own--overkill. Jan van Kessel, the Dutch artist of the 18th century, eschewed the prevailing vanitas subject matter in favor of what appears to be a very lively still life, his Two Cats Playing with Fish, has turned what may have initially seemed a still-life debacle into an amusing feline romp. He painted at least two versions of this scene.

Although I've painted several still-lifes which might reasonably be considered a bit odd as to choice of subject matter, two in particular come to mind. Painted when I was on a dieting kick, together, the contrast between them, Before (left) and After (right) is where the humor resides, emanating from both the content and the three-dimensional aspects of the attached (fake) veggies and (real) candy.

After, 2001, Jim Lane

Before, 2001, Jim Lane

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