There is anxiety at making still life paintings. We are not immune to the era of art ushered in by the Brillo boxes* of Andy Warhol, exhibited five decades ago at the Stable Gallery in New York. Arthur Danto dubbed that unprecedented stroke with blade of a theory positing that since almost anything can be Art and nothing is special anymore, Art, therefore, is like everything else. It can thus be said that there is no use of the concept, the idea or the term Art as it were. It has served its time and we only need to accept its shift to philosophy.
This Hegelian end-of-history scenario may have demolished the notion of art as a special object. But it hardly rocked the institutions that manage that history. Institutions condoned the dismissal of the mandate - the idea of art as possessing internal criteria, in effect, empowering the extrinsic and necessitating postscripts to its story. And so, patronage, museums, galleries, curators and schools survived to continue ordaining that which is art while herding Danto’s theory into the fold. True to form, it shadowed the Academies’ resolve about a hundred years before in assimilating the Romantic avant-garde that it used to reject. So, in general, the procedure has not really changed even if appearances have.
With art’s shift to philosophy, the spread of conceptualist practices accrued proportionately with the taunting attitude towards craft or craftiness in art, suspected by those who see technique and facility with artistic media as a screen to obfuscate a lack of depth and insight. This argument, of course, is wanting in logic as much as the reverse accusation hurled at conceptualist works. More so, painting, with its long history, is a favorite whipping boy of the art world, its validity questioned at every twist and turn, despite or because of its allure and aura. It is the métier many skeptics love to hate.
There is relief that in the wake of philosophizing, works of art have been recast as signs. As certain as this framework equally dismisses specialness in art, it emphasizes what conceptualism risks in its criteria: the value for connection with the viewer. The sign is there to be attended to and tackled. It needs to be decoded not just imbibed, read into more than just felt. It is contextual to environment and circumstances. It is hardly an autonomous self-reflexive entity. It informs action and modifies response.
Signs are mutable and not fixed. Basically comprising the signifier and the signified (for C.S. Peirce —the vehicle, the object and the interpretant), its components can interchange. They can bear an almost limitless process of signification. Signs can be newly made, but never “unused new” in themselves or sui generis in that they are signs precisely because they are part of an existing vocabulary. For them to preclude misunderstanding, an understanding has to be established beforehand. Signs are not (merely) for passive contemplation but for active interpretation or engagement.
Signs need not be original or larger than life; the grand heroic gesture, unnecessary, the mythical, elective. They can be the objects in the attic, the old photo album, the discards. They can be familiar, mundane, as commonplace as laundry detergent or the hodge-podge of objects that populate contemporary everyday life. And paintings can attempt to be all these. How fortunate that still life, the lowest-ranked genre in the hierarchy of the erstwhile art academies, is accessible as a curious reference.
Its humble stature stems from being a foundational format for copying from life in painting and drawing - the depicted objects therein serving as practice or mere detail for bigger and more complex endeavors. A throwback further in time brings us to Pliny’s account of the mimetic virtuosity of Greek painters in their verisimilar rendering of objects. Existing sites and artifacts confirm, among other things, the anthropocentric take of mosaic artists and Roman painters in depicting inanimate objects such as the human skull, which, associated with flowers, fruits, glassware and everyday objects, arguably explains the concept of vanitas, the allegory for the brevity of life, taken up by 16th, 17th European painters, and in 18th century as a vehicle to visualize the moral and rational ethos of The Enlightenment. In the advent of photography in the 19th century, still life found a new tool and eventually a medium at the time of the growth in the demand for paintings to signify the status and (new) wealth of the industrialists. The Impressionists peppered their love for the outdoors with intimate painting excursions of domestic objects. And in the past century, it was reworked by the likes of Picasso to accomplish the modernist vision spurred by Cezanne’s investigations. It endured the updates of academic instruction in art and alongside, spawned incarnations in a plethora of media including computer art and video, amidst the constant transmutation and migration of art practices.
So, half a century after the Brillo boxes’ debut, what could still life signify in a world reeking with violence no painting could outmatch as reminder of the brevity of life? How could still life claim to be contemporary in spirit? Up to what extent can still life painting resist the lure of commodification or can it ever? Does the painter depict objects to signify something or nothing? Conversely, does he/she choose objects of significance, paint them and let the work take off from there? What strategies can painters devise to avoid cliché and the proverbial? How does one breathe new life into an aged form?
* Exhibited in 1964, it is properly titled Brillo Soap Pads Box, silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood box measuring 17 x 17 x 14 inches, mimicking the dimensions of an actual Brillo Soap Pads box.