The ancient genre of still life is still very much with us, as five contemporary artists prove.
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David Ligare finds the roots of his still-life art in the Greco-Roman world, which he conjures with classically balanced forms bathed in the Mediterranean-like sun of Northern California, where he lives. He started doing still lifes in 1987 and soon hit on a signature style of displaying objects in a sort of open cubical container, incongruously placed outdoors by the seashore and sidelit for maximum shadow production. “The essence of classicism is balance between opposing forces, the object and its shadow,” he explains. “I wanted something that was not the traditional way of making still-life paintings, something that would express the idea of wholeness or completeness. I wanted to create a form where everything was there.”
For his current series of work Ligare uses the Greek word aparchai, which refers to offerings of foodstuffs left for the gods. About 10 years ago, after studying Pompeii and Herculaneum, where many still-life images remain in mural and mosaic, he became convinced that aparchai represents a category of ancient still life that scholars have yet to recognize. At present, the genre is divided into xenia, images of food offered as hospitality to guests, and rhopographia, everyday objects depicted in carefully arrayed disarray. The painting shown here, one of Ligare’s most recent aparchai efforts, is an offering to the goddess Athena, whose animal symbol, the owl, is depicted on the vase in fittingly Attic red-figure style.
“I’m not that interested in subject matter, but I am interested in forms and colors and movement,” says Janet Fish, a painter based in Vermont and New York City. Movement is not a quality frequently associated with still life, but for Fish, shimmering glass and colorful, curling cloth are dynamic in the way they conduct light and affect the viewer. “It’s more how the eye moves,” she says. “The movement is your eye flowing through the painting rather than a symbol of movement like someone running.”
Fish, the granddaughter of American Impressionist Clark Voorhees, grew up in Bermuda, where the bright and varied local colors made a deep impression on her developing eye. For her own intensely chromatic works, she spends days or even weeks arranging the objects in her studio, searching for just the right combination of reflection, refraction and contrast in texture and color. This contemplative exercise pays off with dazzling results. “I basically think that at one point I was painting still life because it was there and wouldn’t talk to me,” says the artist. “I could really spend my time looking and seeing how things relate.”
Sherrie Wolf’s recent work plays with expectations about the still-life genre by placing the traditional arrangements of domestic objects against backdrops that replicate Hudson River School and other iconic landscape paintings. In the example shown here, the scene in the far distance is from an Albert Bierstadt painting of Puget Sound, not far from where Wolf lives in Portland, Ore. The tiny figures pulling their boats ashore import a human presence rarely seen in still life. What’s more, as a local, Wolf is well aware that Bierstadt’s composition is an imaginative composite rather than an accurate depiction of the actual place.
“It’s all illusion—that’s what painting is about,” enthuses Wolf. “To me the whole world is still life, wherever I look, the shapes I see, the way the light is hitting them. In what I see in the world all the time, things have been arranged. As a visual person, I love to arrange and control them myself, in my studio. I’ve always liked playing with illusion and trompe l’oeil rather than just using abstractions.” By reproducing older paintings, the artist not only pays homage to art history but also creates a heightened background–middle ground–foreground structure not usually found in still life, which often seems to occupy a compressed space. In this painting, the velvety drapery at right suggests a theater curtain. For Wolf, the stage-set concept jibes with her sense of illusionistic control. It also reminds her of a favorite painting—Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist and His Museum (1822), in which Peale literally raises the curtain on a vast room containing his own works and those of others.
Jeanette Pasin Sloan
Like much of Jeanette Pasin Sloan’s work, Crazy II, shown here, takes still life to the borders of abstraction and even Op Art. Her preoccupations are with curved reflective objects that turn everyday geometry non-Euclidean and with electric colors that put the retina through its paces. Sloan says, “I consider these objects to be what is real, what we can hold onto in life, but in the reflections there remains what we do not know, the mysterious, that which is unsettling and perhaps chaotic.”
She renders the pattered backdrops (including Navajo rugs) and silvered surfaces of the bowls, cups, vases and metallic cylinders that fill her paintings with a photorealistic technique that leaves nothing to chance. The close cropping of the compositions adds to the sense of abstraction and manipulation of perception. Sloan, who was born in Chicago, is also a prolific printmaker who has published numerous editioned works through the Santa Fe-based Landfall Press over the past 35 years.
Madeline von Foerster
The Northern Renaissance is reborn in Madeline von Foerster’s astonishing paintings, which combine still life with the Wunderkammer and uses these time-honored cultural phenomena to say something relevant to today’s environmental concerns. The artist, who was born in San Francisco, recently moved to Cologne, Germany after living in New York for 13 years.
Of course, in true Renaissance fashion, iconography is essential to von Foerster’s art, and she is glad to explain the meaning of each element in The Collection Cabinet, shown here. “All the objects are animals or species that are collected out of nature, some to the point where they are endangered,” she says. The sculpture with intricate moving parts in the upper left compartment, of a type popular in the Renaissance, is made of ivory; the bird is a species that is collected in Asia to be kept as a songbird; the macaque monkey is collected for medical experiments or as a pet. The red coral and seashell in the lower compartments are typical of Wunderkammer objects of the past. Mischievously but also with a serious purpose, the monkey is freeing the bird from its cage. “In a lot of my paintings, including this one, the subject is that we are using everything up and leaving nothing for anyone else or even ourselves. We’re like a brain saying, I can kill my body and go on living.”
To achieve her incredibly detailed effects, von Foerster uses the Mische or “mixed technique” of oil paint combined with egg tempera that was favored by many of her Flemish forebears. “You get the soft blending and transparency provided by the oil, and then you can completely geek out on the details with the egg tempera,” she says.
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