Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Still Lives

By D. Eric Bookhardt

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Still life. It is one of those art things, a phrase that sounds simple enough at first but soon turns into a riddle if we take a minute to think about it. Almost a contradiction in terms, the "still life" implies a conflict of sorts, a clash between vitality and inertia, sensual gratification and the smooth, timeless oblivion of eternity.

The French have a wonderfully gruesome phrase for still life painting -- nature morte -- which literally means something like "dead nature" and which conjures up wonderfully gruesome visions of dead ducks, fish or sides of meat artfully arranged with flowers, grapes and pomegranates. It is an old European sensibility that turns up often in 19th century Louisiana painting as well. Indeed, nature morte could be challenging back then -- especially when the work went slowly and the subject matter began to rot right there on the spot, imbuing the whole area with the atmospheric charm of a charnel house.

Of late, art world opinion has almost reduced still life painting to a sub-category of decor, hence the tendency of many artists to shun the genre entirely. Even so, some great 20th century artists, including Picasso and Cezanne, were prolific still life painters. Be that as it may, it takes a bit of a leap to see how the still life relates to late 20th century life. Still Sixteen, Still Life at Galerie Simone Stern places the whole issue in a somewhat sharper perspective.

Anyone expecting a picturesque array of blossoms, veggies and bouquets may be in for something of a surprise. Although there is no shortage of such traditional elements, there also are many other approaches, including abstraction, collage and a representational pseudo-baroque style of painting that might truly be deemed "postmodern" (if, indeed, that hackneyed, flagellated and abused offspring of the art lexicon still has any meaning left in it). In this vein, Monica Zeringue's Nest, 1998 is emblematic.

At first glance, Nest resembles a simplified rendition of one of those antique Dutch animal fantasies, oil-on-canvas extravaganzas in which the byproducts of barn yards, hunting expeditions and nature outings were rendered in sharp-edged, eye-popping detail. And, in fact, with its neat arrangement of delicate white eggs set against their sanguine, hemoglobin-tinged background, Zeringue's painting does indeed have sharp edges -- actually, sharp points -- as we note that the nest itself is made of barbed wire, infusing the whole affair with a kind of post-punk, retro-baroque charisma.

Other approaches include Paul Manes' Bowl, 1998, an empty bowl painted over yellowed newsprint and canvas. Streaks of paint ooze off the edges of the bowl's rim and drip down the painting's surface, blurring the boundaries between the image and the art work itself, thus resulting in that most unusual of aesthetic commodities: a dadaist still life painting. And Edward Giobbi's Interior With Dried Flowers is just that, a decorous array of blossoms arranged elegantly in their vases. But the flowers are "dried" -- hence dead (and look it) -- giving literal credence to that old French nature morte shtick.

Some of the most intriguing works in the show also are among the most traditional, technically speaking, as we see in the luminous, jewel-like paintings of Amy Weiskopf and Jeanne Duval. Weiskopf and Duval both produce work that strikingly resembles the virtuoso painting of the Dutch, Flemish and Spanish baroque masters, yet, for all their historicism, both seem to operate from a perspective that goes beyond the limits of traditionalism. Duval's Still Life With Artichoke offers an elegant example of what this implies.

A pointedly casual arrangement of an immature artichoke, a squash and some akimbo crockery, Artichoke is arresting for its 3-D luminosity, the vibrant life forces that still reside in its severed greenery. Here, the light itself becomes a life force, virtually beaming the greens and reds right out of their earth-toned background and into the viewer's retina. And if the style is retro, the light quality is contemporary -- as "medium cool" as any modern UV shielded environment can be.

Similar approaches abound in Weiskopf's eloquent efforts, as we see in Oysters, 1998, a simple study of three oysters on the half-shell against a burnt cinnamon background. Here again, the light is the life force, the raison d'etre for the work, which, like the genre itself, symbolizes the need to affirm life's continuity amid the chaos of birth and death, the ceaseless and inescapable cycles of earthly existence.


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