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Commentary: From classical to contemporary, the genre of still life painting continues to inspire

Nancy Kranzberg

When I think of still life paintings, I think of Dutch 16th century works which have a beautiful display of flowers presented very formally in a lovely vase.

A walk into the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert called The Galen makes us all realize that still life works included in an exhibition entitled "Still Life: Capturing the Moment" cover the gamut. In this small gem of a show are works in virtually all media.

Chief Curator, Katherine Hough says, "In a creative mix of artworks from the museum's holdings and on loan from private collections, the exhibition looks beyond the classical definition of a still life to explore why this esteemed genre continues to compel artists today. Bringing together paintings, sculptures, photographs, and a surprising variety of other media, this exhibition studies the powerful psychological and associational value of altering time, place and imagery into an artistic still life."

Paintings by Bruce Cohen, Helen Lundeberg and Paul Wonner transform the commonplace into visual illusions of imaginative and complex beauty. New media installations produce alluring contemporary innovations, while artist Ori Gersht's mesmerizing film literally explodes the idea of still life. This exhibition offers a refreshing, pleasurable and surprising look at the "still life."

Judy Mann, Curator of Early European Art to 1800 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, says that still life painting goes all the way back to the mosaic floors found in Pompeii and speaks to everyday, recognizable objects. The order and placement of the objects often causes us to have feelings of meditation and causes us to reflect and ponder. Often these works are made to teach us moral lessons both secular and religious.

In a Wikipedia description of still life it says, "Still life occupied the lowest rung of the hierarchy of genres, but still has been extremely popular with buyers. Often still life works encompass other types of painting with prominent still life elements, usually symbolic, and images that rely on a multitude of still life elements ostensibly to reproduce a 'slice of life.'”

Our Saint Louis Art Museum has hundreds of still life works covering virtually all the centuries on canvas as well as works on paper. Some of my favorites are Peter Klaas's 1643 work depicting a large roemer (glass) and a plate of oysters, Spanish artist Juan Gris's 1920  "Still Life with a Guitar," many abstract still lifes by Picasso, and of course, French artist Chardin's gorgeous work with a silver goblet.

Other well-known works in the museum’s collection are William Michael Hartnett's," Staats Zellung which depicts a table with a pipe, matches, and an ale glass and gives us a feeling that someone has just walked away, Van Gogh's luscious still life with fruit, Lodewik Susi's "Still Life with Mice and Fruit” from 1619 and Martin Johnson Heade's 1863 work entitled "A Vase of Corn Lilies and Heliotrope."

The list goes on and on and includes Audrey Flack's 1975 "Fourth of July Still Life” from "Spirit of Independence: Kent Bicentennial Portfolio” and our own late Jerry Wilkerson's "American Still Life."

Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Director of The Sheldon Art Galleries, tells me that we can currently see an exhibition of contemporary still life works by Chicago based painter Frank Trankina in the Sheldon Art Galleries. His works explore the duality of still life and storytelling in gorgeously painted scenes that are created with collections of vintage figurines and toys. The environment, process and materials of artmaking, which are a reminder of the dusky work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler are also subjects that Trankina investigates. Though his works allude to Old Master still life paintings, they are of our contemporary world - often referring to human relationships and their idiosyncrasies.

Take a walk through The Saint Louis Art Museum and The Sheldon galleries and treat yourself to a day to ponder, reflect and become aware of the endless possibilities of what a still life is and can be.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.