Dispensing David by Ben Steele
By Kristin Bucher
Welcome to our special issue on still-life painting. The genre has a solid foundation in art history, beginning with the renowned 17th-century Dutch painters and extending through the Impressionists to 20th-century masters like Wayne Thiebaud. But among today’s audiences it often ranks at least third in popularity, behind landscape and figurative work. With so many talented still-life artists painting today, it’s difficult to understand why—especially for me, since still life is one of my personal favorites. And especially when there are so many ways to think about its merits, as evidenced in the features we bring you this month.
For one thing, still life allows both the painter and the viewer the uncommon privilege of paying attention to small details that would otherwise go unnoticed. Jacob A. Pfeiffer puts it this way in explaining why he almost always paints from life: “I need to closely observe the object, in many cases even hold it in my hand. I stare at what happens with the wrinkle of a leaf, or the light on the surface of an apple.” Kathrine Lemke Waste (who is part of the portfolio) believes that “A lot of life happens at the level of these little objects.” As an example, on my desk right now is a ginger-colored candle. It’s a lovely color and smells great, but until now I hadn’t really looked at the variations of color across its surface, from light to dark. Still-life painters observe these telling details all the time.
Another way to interpret still lifes is to think about the drama inherent in each vignette. Take Phillip R. Jackson’s work, for example, in which each object seems transformed into an actor in a play. “It’s really amazing how you can achieve a vibrancy of character and create relationships while telling a story at the same time,” Jackson says. And then we have the words of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who once said, “Cézanne made a living thing out of a teacup, or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive. He raised still life to such a point that it ceased to be inanimate. He painted these things as he painted human beings, because he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything.”
And so I urge you to take the time to examine the vessel in Mary Russell’s arrangement with the luminescent bowl, and to consider the small slice of theater taking place in Margaretta Gilboy’s starry night. I hope you’ll find these works as fascinating as I do.
Featured in June 2007