When I think of still life, I have to admit I feel a little contemptuous. It’s because the first images that pop into my mind are the darkly varnished kitchen table paintings from the 18th century and earlier. You know what I’m talking about. Sickeningly sweet overripe fruit symbolizing fertility, extravagant displays of freshly killed animals ready to be plucked and skinned for the feast, frothy flower arrangements that may have once been bright and cheerful but have browned with age. There is not a flaw to be found throughout the spread, not a worm hole or crumb of dirt or bumbling gnat. Are you kidding me?! There HAD to have been gnats. And so, despite the superb realism these painters show off, reality (with all its character) is nowhere to be found.
Just take a scroll through Wikipedia’s still life page. There are a few fun images, like The Beaneater, that show poor table manners and black fingernails. And once you get to Matisse and Picasso, things become more interesting. At least you aren’t looking at a 2D version of your great-grandmother’s wax grapes.
So when James (and he wasn’t the first) described my paintings as still lifes, I bristled. I had to carefully consider my response –what’s a bigger tip-off of insecurity than defensiveness? I’ve never thought of my paintings that way, since for me they have a much greater significance, a personal connection that I just don’t see between artists and their traditional still lifes. I’ll be the first to confess I don’t do a great job of keeping up with today’s painters. A little sifting through my memory of gallery visits brought up the following examples.
Melissa Gwyn's DDT, a twist on the overripe fruit and meat scene, makes a comment about the way we use chemicals. (Scroll down, DDT is the 4th image.) This is a favorite painting of mine. Its scientific message uses cells and molecules as the building blocks of the composition. You can’t tell from the picture, but the paint is built up in places to make a really captivating surface.
Feast, by Bryan Drury, looks like another 'bounty of the hunt' painting at first glance. Except it actually shows a different sort of hunter, and a different sort of feast. This painting is huge. Add dramatic gallery lighting for even greater impact. Look who’s eating, who’s being eaten, and you get a very dark feeling about the whole thing.
A couple of other paintings I found while browsing the web may be slightly closer to what I’m doing. A sinkful of dirty dishes shows a little despair in life’s daily inconveniences, or hints at a greater dissatisfaction. Two brightly colored collections of objects with some nasty intruders ask a deeper question than a simple flower arrangement could.