Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Still Life: A Cornucopia of Connotation

I've always adored the baroque still life paintings of the 1600s where the subject, though still beautiful, is past its first bloom and decaying slightly – torn from its natural place in the world, rumpled, bruised, and oozing sticky juices which draw insects. These ostensibly decorative paintings are such a ripe metaphor for the cycle of human existence, with all its humid indignities, and I never tire of studying their incredible lighting and minute details.

Jan van Huysum, "Basket of Flowers," circa 1720

The first "work of art" I remember seeing as a child was a hackneyed dime-store print of a chrysanthemum arrangement that hung on our living-room wall, and for some reason, the contrast of that trite, pretty image with these intricate studies of nature, light and decay is fascinating to me. It's easy enough to consider still life merely the study of everyday natural objects, but while on the surface these are merely lovely things painted with the utmost skill, they actually encompass all of human experience – budding, blossoming, ripening, withering, death and decay – a festoon of fecundity and mortality that dazzles the eye.

Ironically, the Dutch still life masters were looked down upon by their contemporaries as mere imitators of nature. Until that point, the church had been the main source of income for most painters, but in the Netherlands the rise of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, which forbade religious iconography, drove artists to seek other patrons. What they found were the burgeoning Dutch middle classes, who responded enthusiastically to what became known as vanitas paintings, arrangements of objects such as skulls and decaying fruit which symbolized the impermanence of worldly things. The Dutch dubbed this genre stilleven, which translated literally into the English "still life" – but the French gave it the disparaging title nature morte, "dead nature." This sort of painting – though wildly popular – was considered so lowly in the art world that few objected to the fact that even women worked professionally as still life painters.

As far as I'm concerned, the virtuoso of this genre is the Dutch Baroque master Jan Davidsz de Heem. Despite being over 300 years old, his fruits still offer up their dewy, slightly flawed flesh, their split ripeness, dripping with sweet juices. His leaves are imperfect, but so precisely rendered as to invite speculation as to what blight caused the particular defect. His paintings crawl with insects, both ornamental and pestilential, which feed on the life seeping from the dying beauty before us.

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers," 1660

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers" (detail)

"Festoon of Fruit and Flowers" (detail)

Another of my favorite works of this type is "Still Life with Fruit and Carafe," an work from the same era which was painted in Rome by an unknown painter working in a style similar to that of Saraceni and Caravaggio, who for lack of a better name was dubbed Pensionante del Saraceni, or "Saraceni's lodger." Despite being anonymous, this artist is known for his unique sense of geometry and his use of light to soften objects. I respond to this painting's air of twilight melancholy and the ripe, sensual quality of the disheveled fruits.

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe," circa 1610

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe" (detail)

"Still Life with Fruit and Carafe" (detail)

What brought all this to mind just now was the accidental discovery of a modern painter named Julie Heffernan. While her work isn't quite still life – in fact, she paints exclusively allegorical self-portraits – it immediately made me want to revisit the Baroque masters' ostensibly simple paintings of fruit and flowers, which achieved many of the same goals with quiet humility and grace.

"Self-Portrait as Post-Script," 2007

"Self-Portrait as Spill," 2007

After pondering Heffernan's work a bit, it occurred to me that it actually owes more to the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo than to the great still life painters of yore. Arcimboldo painted portraits like none the world had ever seen before, exploiting the Renaissance taste for riddles and curiosities with tongue-in-cheek composite heads and puzzle paintings. Like Heffernan, he was more concerned with achieving an effect than creating a moving and meaningful depiction of the natural world, and much of his most famous work was also self-portraiture.

"Self-Portrait as Spring," 1573

"Self-Portrait as Winter," 1573

"Earth," 1570

Arcimboldo is also considered one of the fathers of surrealism, despite the fact that he painted 400 years before surrealism came into being. These days, there aren't many pop surrealist painters who paint anything that could be seen as pure still life, but a few associations come to mind. Many of Tiffany Bozic's fleshy bouquets of sea creatures are just as deliberate and allegorical as any Baroque still life. Some of Chris Peters' work is in the tradition of vanitas paintings, which point to the emptiness of life, the futility of pleasure and the inevitability of death. And after all, we could all use a little reminder of that from time to time.

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

– William Shakespeare,

Friday, July 18, 2008

Michael Brown's Totemic Menagerie

With a name as commonplace as Michael Brown, it must be difficult to stand out in the art world. Fortunately, his images are striking enough to hook the viewer at first glance. Brown has a rather varied repertoire, ranging from soft angry rabbits to fantastical marine life, from stern deer and reproachful swans to rumbustious hummingbirds, then veering crazily into the realms of haunted tree stumps, strange, rubbery women and technicolor gloop.

Michael Brown reports that he was born in rural upstate New York in 1969. There he discovered his desire to create other worlds through drawing and painting, and early on made the decison to dedicate his life to art. He now lives in Atlanta, where he is a professor of painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and is currently showing at Nucleus Gallery and Sarah Bain Gallery in California.


I first discovered Michael Brown's work in someone else's collection. One of his velvety, masterfully lit bunnies glared malevolently at me from the canvas, and I was smitten. There is something in the combination of soft, highly rendered textures with dramatic chiaroscuro effects that is quite compelling. The directness with which the almost-human eyes of his menagerie meet the eye of the beholder creates an undefinable but delicious sense of unease.

I must admit I nearly despaired of ever owning one of his paintings myself, as it appeared that he was working fairly large, which drove his prices into what I consider "fiscally irresponsible" territory for one such as myself. Fortunately, he chose to paint a few amazing smaller pieces for his latest show at Nucleus, so I lucked into obtaining this belligerent, blushing invertebrate.


In preface to his work for the Nucleus show, Michael Brown stated, "This work is a representation of the characters of a story. Portraits. The establishment of an identity of a variety of characters, similar and very different."

I won't pretend to comprehend all the meaning with which Brown infuses his paintings, and would probably do a poor job of articulating what I do perceive, so I will allow him to speak for himself for the most part. After scouring the web, I've discovered a few more or less cryptic explanations he's given of his themes. I hope they will be of some value in elaborating on his work.

"The desire to recognize and understand an ideal is flawed. Symbols often represent opposites simultaneously. This work is influenced by eugenics, mysticism, perfection, Plato, Beuys' rabbit, Greek mythology, albinism, the natural, the created, biblical fables and growing up in a podunk town in upstate New York."

"The Birth of Romulus"

Perhaps a bit more cerebral than the average artist I profile here, Michael Brown can come across as something of an intellectual.

“In my work I am addressing issues of abstraction and representation, hierarchies of power and how class placement is maintained by the manipulation of other classes, Greek and Roman mythology, personal mythology, sex and the roles of dominance and submission, and the creation of things that ‘look’ real but do not exist in any reality. I am very interested in how the mind functions to recognize and decipher the perception of the world in which we exist, real or imagined, and how that defines what and who we are. I am interested in the everything and the nothing."

"Albrecht and the Felt Hat"

"My artistic pursuit is solely to view the world that I am having an exponentially difficult time comprehending, and reduce it to a series of archetypes, personal symbols and free image associations to create paintings, which I then use as the filter with which to reevaluate the world that I exist in, to make some sense of it."


Brown says that one of his artistic goals is "finding sense in the futility of human existence." Yet despite all the darkness and soul-searching, there is a strong undercurrent of humor in much of his work. I get the feeling that behind all the theory and symbolism, he's toying with us a bit.

"Four Star"

"The Standoff"

"The Titanic"

In poking about doing research for this profile, I learned more about one of Brown's influences, Joseph Beuys, who famously gave a performance at the opening of his first solo show in 1965 entitled "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare." In reading this description of Beuys' affinity with animals, I was struck by how it could illuminate Michael Brown's work equally well, for all that Beuys' and Brown's art are nothing alike. So I will leave you with this to ponder.

"As a child, Beuys was fascinated by nature, obsessively cataloguing all the plants and wildlife in his area. At the same time, he was enthralled by northern myths and folklore, in which creatures are endowed with mystical power. This reverence for the natural world persisted throughout his life and his art. He identified closely with certain animals, seeing them as guardian spirits. He said, ‘The figures of the horse, the stag, the swan and the hare constantly come and go – figures which pass freely from one level of existence to another, which represent the incarnation of the soul.'"

"Romulus and the Crown of Thorns"

"The Jewel Thief"

"Death of the Prophet"