Life Still/Still Life
Written by Kathryn Ervin
still life, 1988
Eucalyptus leaves, paraffin wax, a table, chairs, white shirts, singed and gilded, the sound of opera, a vaporizor, a tree branch, ashes
The Arthur and Carol Goldberg Collection
Photo credit: Wayne McCall
When considering the prompt for A Life, Still would you dare consider anything else typical of this genre; perhaps something not explicitly depicting a bowl of fruit or a floral arrangement? When does the aim of traditional still life painters in tackling technical proficiency or contemplating the ephemeral nature of mortality by exploring vanitas imagery become mute in an era of vacillating genres?
That’s exactly what West Coast painters and sculptors of the 20th century were wondering also. To demonstrate their achievements, the San Jose Museum of Art hosted The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture exhibition in late 2003-2004. The show exhibited some of the most contemporary approaches to still life yet. Artists such as Dorr Bothwell, who explores surrealism through symbolic painting, William T. Wiley, with his large linear paintings incorporating literary elements, Wayne Thiebaud’s astoundingly colorful creations of familiar cultural objects, Chester Arnold, known for his socio-politically intergraded landscapes, and Robert Arneson, admired for an intellectually provocative series of ceramic self portraits dealing with issues of mortality. These are just a few of the exhibited Californian artists who brought the practice of still life into the modern era.
As Susan Landauer points out in the introduction of the Not So Still Life catalog, “The contemporary genre no longer resembles the original Dutch stilleven, a term that came into use in the middle of the seventeenth century, nor does it conform to the French term nature morte, which appeared around a hundred years later. Where then are we to draw the line? With such an elastic and mutating form, how are we to define the genre?” From assemblage tableaux by George Herms to an over-sized stack of plates crafted by Robert Therrien the Not So Still Life exhibition brings us to a point of wondering, what exactly wouldn’t qualify as a still life?
In the image above, Ann Hamilton‘s 1988 home installation provokes the same question. Included in “The Not-So-Still Life: A Survey of the Genre in California, 1950-2000” from the catalog put out by the San Jose Museum Of Art, Ann Hamilton’s Still Life breaks all the rules. Hamilton, internationally repute for her tremendous multimedia installations seeks to engage the viewer with more than visual information. In this particular piece, installed in the living room of a landscape designer’s home, vaporizers pumped medicinal smelling eucalyptus scented oils into the air while recorded excerpts from Carmen and The Magic Flute sounded from some unseen source. About 800 singed and gilded shirts were piled on a table, while the artist positioned herself in one of the chairs so that she could not see over the shirts. She remained there for scheduled periods during the extent of the 1988 exhibition.
Hamilton’s materials, employed as a vehicle for communicating a still life theme, were untraditional to say the least, but as we read a statement which describes the concept of her work, we find that the leap is not as hard to make and the foundational ideals of the still life practice mingle with the scents of oils and paraffin wax: “The home is often a sanctuary, a refuge, a place where one is tended, but tending can also become claustrophobic. It can suffocate and destroy the very thing it is trying to create. [The shirts]…here - were so tended they were rendered dysfunctional.”
The quest to define the genre is hardly solved, but perhaps the concepts posed by the first stilleven painters, revisited by contemporary forays under guise with new mediums, will come full circle as you consider our challenge of A Life, Still. Consider all the implications of the wordplay introduced in the title of this exhibition. It may just prove meaningful to your interpretation of still life as an opportunity to express something unique. As Formidable art historian E. H. Gombrich discerningly said, “The still life is compelled to change and at the same time perpetuate tradition.” With this in mind, embrace the contradictions of the Not-So-Still Life and see if it leaves you with just the right sort of inspiration for your own Life, Still.
Kathryn Ervin is a student at East Carolina University serving on the committee who will curate A Life, Still in collaboration with North Carolina Museum of Art.