On ViewKatonah Museum Of Art
March 16 – June 27, 2021
As expressions of mortal transience, commodity culture, or composition, still lifes make us pause. Across photography, video, mixed reality, and a variety of digital arts, the 15 artists in Still/Live at the Katonah Museum of Art find new methods for modernizing the genre. Curator Emily Handlin brings together a selection of works that exhibit an interest in the history of still life in order to expand its range of meanings and expression for our own time. The genre’s temporal dimensions are newly relevant after this last year of enforced stillness alongside the presence of perpetual violence and constancy of technologically mediated connectivity.
Transforming Flowers in a Vase (2016) is a 70-minute loop of imperceptibly fading flowers by Rob and Nick Carter, a husband and wife duo based in England who adopt an array of technologies from AI to light installations to assorted time-based media, a panoply of practices familiar to most of the artists in this exhibit. The tonal design reiterates Flowers in a Vase (ca. 1685) by Rachel Ruysch, the internationally famous flower painter of the 17th century. But this media work captures the bouquet over 10 days, speeding up periods of inactivity and allowing moments of motion to occur in real time. It’s simple and eloquent; one wants to observe change but when it happens, can’t always be sure of what one saw. Jason Salavon’s Still Life (Vanitas) (2009) presents a candle and skull, an austerity that over four hours reveals the skull morphing across bear, baboon, human, and boar. The transitions are hard to note while watching, but a 10-minute departure reveals a skull that is more and less of what it was before.
I’ve always found still lifes to engender thought and preferred them to the military and fancy dress portraits or historical narratives that dominated so many museums of my childhood. Nakeya Brown’s photography series “Some Assembly Required” (2016) positions objects she associates with her grandmother on a stool against a yellow-orange-red flowered wallpaper that evokes some indeterminate but nostalgia-laced decade of the 20th century. The exhibit includes nine photographs from the series; Vanity Box Sitting Pretty reminded me of my grandmother’s baby blue travel case, a source of amazement with its powders, sprays, and salves, and in due course, beauty’s cultural trappings. On an adjacent wall, an installation photograph enlarged from the family archive, Grandma Working at Valley Forge emphasizes the labor that Black women produced in factories and homes for a society that would not acknowledge them.
At the bottom within the hierarchy of painting, still lifes were small and decorative, representing composition and design rather than the majestic narratives of history painting. And yet, in their formal arrangements, still lifes hint at the struggles within mundane existence. From a distance, the photographs in Chuck Ramirez’s “Seven Days” series (2003–4) suggest elegant compositions of color and shape; up close, the tabletops are cluttered with detritus, a confusion of labels, trinkets, and half-eaten food. The cream china and white tablecloth provided a soothing palette for Seven Days: Breakfast Tacos, an iconographic feast of the artist’s background made foreground for those who wish to see.
Sharon Core and Mat Collishaw also evoke the past through the labor in realizing their photographs. Core sourced the antique glassware and personally cultivated the flowers displayed in 1610 (2011), from her series “1606–1907” in which she produced images replicating conventions of the still life form. In Gary Miller (2011), the scattered fries and heavy cinnamon rolls are strange and distressing even before realizing that Collishaw reproduced the last meal of the titular death row inmate. This forcefully recalls the Romance language emphasis in nature morte, rather than the Dutch stilleven. Some people argue that the play with timing ushered in by photography shifted focus away from the shared anxieties of existential time. The isolating and relative basis of regimented time, where every moment is mathematically measured, everything registered as frames per second, made still lifes ironic rather than meditative, but this exhibit complicates such attempts to generalize the genre.
Cynthia Greig’s Still Life with Peaches (after Sam Taylor-Wood) (2009–10) combines photography, drawing and film in a 5:27 looped work of five peaches in which all but one rot. Greig drew charcoal equator lines on the peaches, photographed them six times a day, and erased the lines on the four that disintegrated, producing an animation of the dissolution surrounding the single plastic peach. Mold and rot were atypical subjects until a spate following Taylor-Wood’s 2001 photograph, a year when organic food became an official label and many decried the increasing corporatization of the food industry. The blurring between genetic modification and heritage speaks to the blur we’ve all been experiencing as our digital lives blend into the rest. They are not distinct, and yet we know there is a difference between the plastic peach and the real, the Zoom gathering and the family outing.
The Katonah Museum of Art houses the Rothko Room, a space the artist imagined as a respite for passing drivers. Currently the work displayed is Untitled (1969), a dark bluish, acrylic on paper, and the basis for Will Pappenheimer’s Still Oasis (2021), an augmented reality installation that spans one of the two exhibition rooms, transforming it into a quiet beach replete with palm trees. A car with an open driver-side door and slightly perplexed passenger looking out is a humorous nod to the aspiration of the Rothko Room. We move within this still life, oddly aware of the profundity of our motility.
Several works honor 20th century masters. The brilliant colors of an artist like Matisse no longer need to pulse as if trying to escape their plane now that Claudia Hart offers them the gentlest motion in her luminous five-minute animation; Big Red (2019) for all its vibrancy is a deeply restful work. Ori Gersht likewise inverts expectations in reproducing Giorgio Morandi’s quiet vases to replicate his scenes, then shooting the pottery with an air rifle, capturing the shattering for photographs that allow us to see how the pieces could still fit together even as we see they have been blown apart.
We do not have language for all the experiences that still lifes ask us to consider and David Rokeby’s The Giver of Names (1991–) reminds us that words may not provide the satisfaction we seek. Audiences position objects selected from the mass on the floor for a still life that the camera analyzes and associates until it finally proffers a sentence, often utterly unrelated. How to succinctly invoke all that the objects suggest? The same might be said of those artists and works unmentioned from this admirable exhibit. Many of the works engage trompe l’oeil, a pointed reminder that what meets the eye has always been suspect in any medium, which is why we need time and space for contemplation if we wish to develop insight on the attitudes we bring to these times and the spaces we occupy.