- "Breakfast" by Zachary P. Stephens
The words "still life" might call to mind opulent displays of food, flowers, glassware and linens arranged on a table and painted with exacting realism by, say, a 17th-century Dutch master. A current exhibition at Burlington's BCA Center challenges that trope. Or perhaps it's better to say that "More Than an Object: The Contemporary Still Life" pulls our perceptions into the 21st century. In truth, the inanimate tableau has served, and survived, a cascade of art historical trends lo these many years.
In "More Than an Object," viewers find the malleable format expressed by nine artists through not only painting but also mixed-media sculpture, ceramics, digital animation, installation and photography. Some of the works employ still life in the service of commentary — serious or wry. And some tautly stretch the boundaries of what the French call nature morte.
Two of the artists hew closely to the traditional idea of still life but with a modern, pared-down sensibility. One of Susan Abbott's two paintings in the show, "Autumn Table" (44 inches square), features a white bowl filled with yellow-and-red apples on a white-clothed surface in front of a window, which in turn offers a view of an orange-leafed tree in the foreground, fields undulating toward the horizon and a mountain range beyond.
On the surface, this is a typical Vermont scene, both indoors and out. But Abbott subtly plays with our perception, flattening the plane in front so that the table becomes something of a runway to the literal portal. Our focus is thrust out the window to the distance and then pulled back by the inviting apples and the anchoring round shadow cast by their bowl. Abbott's palette is richly illuminated, her rendering precise but shy of strict realism. Alluring mystery resides in the difference.
Christopher T. Terry's oils depart from tradition in a different way. Far from a sumptuous offering, his subjects are determinedly pedestrian. In "Still Life With Yellow Teapot" (22 by 28 inches), he has crowded onto a small, square wooden table elements that serve caffeination: an Italian espresso pot, a pale blue cup, two other ceramic vessels and the titular teapot. The table is centered against a plain brownish wall. Except it's not really plain. A range of nebulous hues emerges from Terry's handling of paint, along with an exquisite, meditative expression of light and shadow on the tabletop items.
It's overly simplistic to say that Terry finds beauty in the everyday, but his paintings amply illustrate that lavish content is not required.
- "Evertime 04" by Ori Gersht
Two photographs by Ori Gersht are not trompe l'oeil, but they do fool the eye: Even in close proximity, the archival prints could be mistaken for paintings. In part, this is because Gersht's startling images "emulate the forms, colors and compositions of Italian artist Giorgio Morandi's (1890-1964) still life paintings," explains wall text. He even commissioned reproductions of the ghostly, matte ceramic vessels that Morandi favored.
But Gersht doesn't simply replicate the painter's objects; he shoots them. "The artist used slow-motion capture to show the fleeting moment when high-velocity gunfire strikes and shatters" the vessels. In the 14.5-by-18.75-inch print "Evertime 04," a trio of vessels meets this fate before our eyes: On the far right, a curvaceous white vase has blown its top. The other two vessels — rectangular shapes in pale pink and yellow — sit askew surrounded by shards.
A category of still life called vanitas encourages viewers to contemplate the transience of life. Gersht takes this to the next level by essentially assassinating his subjects. Wall text notes that the London-based artist intended to symbolize "the European Union's political fragility," but in gun-obsessed America, these images convey a more lethal vulnerability.
Another photographer, Zachary P. Stephens, takes a playful approach to the still life with large-scale pictures of mundane home life. They suggest chaos more than stillness.
In "Breakfast," the meal in progress is shot rather claustrophobically, at close range and from slightly above a wooden table, and depicts a father's attempt to meet the family's various culinary demands. From the left, a young girl's hand reaches for her bread — crusts removed — while a half-eaten yellow apple and her stuffed toy lie nearby. Another little hand at the top of the frame holds what appears to be a slice of leftover pizza. A cat's whiskered snout pokes discreetly into the scene.
On the right we see a man's hand pouring milk from a plastic jug into a pink bowl filled with Froot Loops. Next to the bowl, the cereal box lies flat, its pastel contents spilling onto the table. Stephens' witty addition: the words "Help Us" spelled out in pink Loops. Finally, like a tiny mascot of affirmation, a white ceramic votive in the middle of this mayhem reads, "all is calm / all is bright."
In this and another photo featuring a haphazard pile of children's winter wear, anonymity underscores the familiar, generic realities of the modern family. Stephens approaches the work with apparent good humor and an unerring eye for composition.
Oona Gardner made her 3D wall-hung ceramic piece, "Mother's Day Still Life," especially for this exhibition, according to Heather Ferrell, BCA's curator and director of exhibitions. And it's subtly topical: One of the "objects" on a platter in her 29-by-26-by-6-inch tableau sure looks like a uterus.
Clay artist Christina Erives removes her objects from the picture plane altogether. "Con o Sin?" ("With or Without?") consists of individual painted ceramic pieces related to a Mexican meal — peppers, avocados, eggs, dishes, bottles — hung together on a wall. Stand-alone clay works, such as a frying pan holding an egg, sit on nearby pedestals.
- "Heir" by William Ransom
If those items raise the question of what can be considered still life, William Ransom's works challenge the category even more. Elsewhere, they would just be called sculptures. But their inclusion is understandable: The Norwich artist's two contributions are the most provocative in the show, and they certainly illustrate how simple items can symbolize complex and deeply fraught phenomena.
Ransom's "Taser" appeared in a solo exhibit last year at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center that eloquently addressed racially based violence and white supremacy. It consists of a hoodie sweatshirt dangling from a peg and a pine-shaped assemblage of charred wooden blocks hanging above it. The latter is a reference to the car deodorizer that 20-year-old Daunte Wright had hanging from his rearview mirror; it was the "violation" for which he was pulled over before he was fatally shot in April 2021.
"Heir" speaks to an older era of systemic racism. An angular, roughly hewn form (60 by 22 by 45 inches) made of granulated white sugar is set on a black-painted wooden base and struck through at the top with an antique cane-cutting machete. Viewers might consider the piece a stark emblem of slavery and colonization or just a striking abstract sculpture with a badass blade. Either way, it is more than an object.