Five Facts about Still Life Art
- Contemporary Artists
By Deja Chappell, Tenenbaum Museum Education Fellow
Read on for more information about still life art in connection with Elegies: Still Lifes in Contemporary Art curated by Monique Long. The works in Elegies show the dynamic potential of objects to represent the social, political and cultural pulse of our time.
1. Still lifes depict objects as their main subject matter. The objects can be natural or manmade and are conventionally “anything that does not move or is dead” .
For example, vases of plants and flowers are classic, recurring subjects in still life art, as with Sadie Barnette’s Birthday Flowers, Rashaad Newsome’s The Art of Immortality 2, Brittany Leanne Williams’ Untitled (Birds of Paradise), and Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Codex.
Generally, still lifes exclude living human figures and landscapes. However both appear in Elegies. Pay close attention to the faces in the foliage in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Grandmother’s Parlour. In Funeral Wallpaper you can see the faintest silhouette of artist Deana Lawson taking the photograph. David Antonio Cruz blurs the lines of landscape and still life in thefogsuspendedovertheland through the repetition of branches amounting to a forested landscape.
2. The term “still life” comes from the Dutch phrase stilleven .
Still life paintings rose to prominence in the Netherlands during the 17th century in a period defined by Dutch colonialism and their prominent participation in the transatlantic slave trade [3, 4, 5]. Significantly, several Dutch still life painters from this era included enslaved African figures in their works. Art historians have made the argument that the inclusion of enslaved figures contributed to and revealed a clear objectification of Black bodies, in keeping with ideology of dehumanization that marked slavery and the slave trade .
In Avocado and Coconut, Elizabeth Colomba invokes the legacy of colonialism writ upon the “fruits” of empire. Colomba focuses on fruits harvested on plantations in the Caribbean for centuries, insisting we consider the labor that made their global circulation possible.
3. Still lifes can be created in virtually any medium: painting, photography, sculpture, printmaking, or a combination of media.
Look at the arrangement of historical and contemporary objects in Awol Erizku’s photograph Origin of Afro-Esoterism. Erizku uses a classical still life format to provoke questions of identity and race. He includes a hand and a ColorChecker chart as a reminder of the role of the artist in the creation of the work and its meaning.
In Western art, still lifes have traditionally been realist paintings. Despite the skill it takes to create them, they were considered the lowest genre of art in the Academic hierarchy, with historic scenes, portraits, everyday scenes, and landscapes being of higher value .
4. Memento mori and vanitas are two traditional categories of still lifes in Western art.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.” These typically contemplate mortality and death . Vanitas still lifes emphasize wealth and earthly pleasures—and warn of their impermanence .
William Villalongo’s Feast with Nkisi viscerally references death by featuring the only weapon in the show.
Devan Shimoyama’s For Tamir VII and For Tamir VIII reference more than just the site of the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police in 2014. The swings, common to virtually every playground, are a site of commemoration of Tamir’s life and other young Black lives.
Azikwe Mohammed’s fluorescent Ms. Keisha’s for Dinner, These N***** Got Money #3 could be considered a vanitas. Listen to the artist speak about the symbolism of oranges as an announcement of wealth.
Lakela Brown’s Gold Teeth Still Life #2 evokes both memento mori and vanitas. The flash of gold elevates hip hop culture, while the crown itself is an admission of decay (cavities). The stacked gums and teeth remind us of the fragile components of the human body.
5. Still lifes have a special place in art history of the African Diaspora. Check out more still lifes from African American painters, printmakers, and photographers past and present:
Charles Ethan Porter – Untitled (Cracked Watermelon)
William H. Johnson – Still Life–Flowers
Lois Mailou Jones – Still Life With Portrait
Jacob Lawrence – Still Life With Masks
Jacob Lawrence – Morning Still Life
Pauline Powell Burns – Violets
References and further reading: