Triumphant Carrot: The Persistence of Still Life
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, Sam Taylor-Wood
June 4 – August 22, 2010
This exhibition explored the traditional genre of still life and how it is a sustained practice within contemporary visual art making. The number of artists and works was large for the exhibition spaces of the Contemporary Art Gallery, and yet it seemed small in relation to the subject.
Essay by Jenifer Papararo
The quantity of works reflected this genre’s continued importance in current art production and discourse, and was conceptually tied to conventional formal aspects of still life, gathering together many objects for contemplation.In writing on the persistence of genres in contemporary art Thomas Crow asks, “How can that archaic-sounding concept be important any more for understanding the condition of art?”. 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 are the principle distinctions with the last three commonly referred to as the petit genres. A further hierarchy played out within each category as subjects- historical, literary or religious – were ranked, or the stature of the individual portrayed measured. In landscapes those with figures were considered more important than those without, and those with figures who interacted more important than those that didn’t; and in still life the vanitas took precedent. The basis of all this ranking was to demarcate the level of intellectual pursuit, marking a higher order of scholarship that moved beyond replication and craft to research and mastery of subject. In the mid 19th century significant challenges to this order came forward from the avant-garde who directed their intellectual ambition into representations that reflected contemporary life. In reference to the work of the French painter Gustave Courbet, Crow stats that “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.” This inversion mainly occurred in landscape and portraiture, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that still life trumped all the other genres.
In Margit Rowell’s catalogue essay for the exhibition Objects of Desire: Modern Still Life (Museum of Modern Art, New York 1997) she, like Crow, links the changing importance of still life to the development of the avant-garde, citing Paul Cézanne as a catalyst and claiming that still life’s prominence was solidified with Cubism. In trying to render life static Cézanne established a contradiction particularly paradoxical to his genre — that nothing is still. Like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who followed him, Cézanne attempted to depict space, colour, and form on one surface to imply multiple planes, connoting instability and the passing of time. He used the everyday object set in a simple scene was used as a means to contemplate form and challenge perception, ultimately placing conceptual worth outside subject matter. This endeavor to empty still life of its subject matter is a history that in part leads to the dispensation of objects and settings altogether, prioritizing abstract art as the highest form of intellectual, moral and spiritual pursuit, but that account writes out the importance of representation and the familiar.
Rowell sees still life as fiction, stating “although they appear accessible, are actually inaccessible, fictional, created; ideal as opposed to the real.” The object significance doesn’t have to be illustrative of 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 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 has 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, and 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, but 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 still resonates. It persists in contemporary art, how it is conceived, produced and presented. In the history of still life it has most often dealt with the domestic, exactly the reason it was relegated to the lowest order, but in contemporary terms this use of the domestic is tied more to the personal than to the common, mundane and everyday. This appeared in the work of Peter Fishcli & David Weiss, Rodney Graham, Damian Moppett, and Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg in the representation of their studios, and also in much of the other works in the exhibition. Jayce Salloum’s flower clusters recorded his travels; each layer of gesso covering the beer could marks time for Eric Cameron; and Liz Magor’s cast and stacked objects could be read as a personal narrative. The number of artists and works was large for the exhibition spaces of the Contemporary Art Gallery, and yet it seemed small in relation to the subject. But the relatively large number of works here was intended to reflect this genre’s continued importance in current art production and discourse, and was conceptually tied to conventional formal aspects of still life — composing many objects in a constructed setting for contemplation.
Each of the petit genres carries its clichés, but they seem to register most strongly within still life and as such was a central point of interest in selecting the works for this exhibition. Many of the pieces were chosen because they stuck closely to the formal conventions and typical subject matter of still life. In Triumphant Carrot: the Persistence of Still Life you would not only see carrots, but also many flowers, fruits, vases, candle sticks, glassware or other objects familiar to the genre, placed in a commonplace setting on a table top in a nondescript interior. The first part of the title is an appropriation of one of Fischli and Weiss’s photographs from their Equilibres 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 was also used to capture a capriciousness and wit that ran through many of the works in this show. This incorporation and reducing of the terms of still life, working with a subject and form that is filled with clichés and somewhat oversaturated, could bring about a comic effect or leant toward the sentimental. Rhonda Weppler & Trevor Mahovsky put a wine bottle on top of a skull as if jokingly taunting the vanitas and Ron Tran absurdly turned the average shopping mall portrait studio into a still life scene. Brad Phillips often uses humour in his imagery and titles. For the painting Nature Morte, he captured the quick and aggressive gesture of stabbing a knife through a flower in a meticulously rendered oil painting. Hans-Peter Feldmann commonly searches out the cliché, and for his three works in this exhibition he used the flower, each a different blossom in the same tightly cropped composition. The photographs almost resembled scientific research, but spilt more aptly into the realm of kitsch.
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 still rested in the realm of still life, reinventing not so much how to read a still life, but its formal properties. Fischli and Weiss introduced a precarious balance into the equation. The photograph, reproduced on the front of this invite, included objects typical to the genre (vegetables and kitchen utensils) on a covered table, but here the only one item to touch the table with all the other objects balancing precariously off its handle. There was definitely a whimsy at work here, poking fun at the term “still life” in that this balancing act was unstable and could topple in an instant. The highly composed assemblage of objects was anything but perfunctory, drawing quick attention to the constructed nature of the still life. There was no chance the viewer could misconstrue this composition as anything but a decidedly constituted scene. The artist’s hand as maker was put forward for consideration in a reflection on the process of making: 140 photographs produced in their studio mainly using the material at hand.
This reference to the artist and the clichés of making art could also be seen in the work of Graham who photographed a decayed and dry bouquet of flowers in his painting studio. The tightly composed image of the flowers, which were placed in the exact centre of the frame, read counter to the disarray of the tabletop with its accumulation of paint drops and discarded material. The tight frame and the mess drew attention to the artist as maker, acting like a document of his studio, offering a glimpse into his process and implying something personal. Reference to the studio was also evident in Damian Moppett’s painting, which was a reproduction of an earlier photograph from his Impure Systems photographic series (1994) and was the first of many paintings that used the same image at its base. The image was a composed, but quick assemblage of material randomly accumulated on a table. Like this one painting, much of Moppett’s work refers to its making in a repetition that rearticulates the conventions of still life under a veil of process, form and practice that is tied to a personal reference and is always changing in medium, style and form.
The intellectual investment in the terms of still life equaled an elevation of its status, and in the early part of the 20th century it was advanced mainly through formal investigation. In Norman Bryson’s definitive text on the subject, he 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.” Bryson’s history doesn’t venture past the 19th century and thus doesn’t investigate the formal concerns of Cézanne or the Cubists, but he does articulate a lack in the history of the genre and its discourse, and I think one that had shifted and was readily visible in the works in this exhibition. What this quote by Bryson signified to me was a clear potential to engage with contemporary still life in a manner that ran deeper than the surface of the picture plane to make substantive relations between personalized narratives and aesthetic exploration.