I have not written on this blog for awhile. Except for my brief digression about baseball and the place of artists in our culture, I have been busy with other things. I am writing a book on ontological perspective in painting, pulling together thoughts I have been incubating for a long time on the common formal aspects of art that is non-individualistic, and therefore non-linear. Perhaps I can say more in future entries here.
I would also like to return to my list of the attributes of contemplative art, posted in February, before too long, to look more closely at each of them. I have not forgotten about that thread.
However there are three characteristics of my own artwork that did not make that list, and I would like to talk about them next. These are distinctly contemplative characteristics, yet I did not include them as “attributes” because I do not find them to be universal. However, they are by no means unique to my own artwork, often popping up in other contemplative art, and bear a closer look.
There are three:
1. My subject matter, usually called, still life,
2. their temporal, often extremely ephemeral quality, and
3. their visual orientation, their general verticality.
Today I would like to talk about still life, and continue with the others this weekend.
A contemplative painting does not have to be a still life, as is evident in the work of my friend Teri Bloch, who I mentioned recently. Teri paints people, many in fleeting street scenes. They are contemplative, not by subject matter, but by nature of her gaze. She lifts an image out of the glance and creates a painting that holds the eye. She paints scenes that have lasted only a moment, but in her transfiguration they are held, in her work, for a closer, more contemplative, gaze. Likewise, in the dioramas of B.J. Christofferson, we are presented with a lot of visual information, but B.J arranges things in a contemplative way. Her works, like those of Joseph Cornell, become still life objects in themselves, open to a deeper, more concentrated attention.
But the contemplative gaze is very commonly caught by ordinary things from everyday life, things that hold still. Objects on a table and other such quotidian forms are more likely to be contemplated because they are so ordinary, they don’t move, and they are with us every day. They almost seem to have a quiet life of their own, waiting patiently to be noticed. They create a time and a space in which the eye may become engrossed. It is a safe place for our vision to settle, perhaps to heal from the abuses of speed and boredom. Part of their appeal, certainly, is the comfort of the familiar: the simple vessels of mealtimes, the odd decorative knick-knacks that almost subliminally engage the corner of the eye as we move through the rooms of our homes. These objects of still life, the simple ordinary everyday odds and ends of life, have often captured my attention and engaged my looking.
As a student in painting at the University of Minnesota, I found this interest to be quite unique in the graduate program. My colleagues had largely moved on from the subject matter of their earliest classes to subject matter that is generally considered more important. There is no surprise in this. Historically still life has been the least credited genre in western art. Over the centuries it was largely considered to be the subject most appropriate for student artists. The most important subjects for serious artists were usually stories from the Bible or Greek mythology, “history paintings” as they were termed. My colleagues weren’t painting Bible stories, but the contemporary popular equivalent, works about major issues of our time such as gender and racial equality, homosexuality, and multiculturalism. Issues important to mainstream culture. I mean no disparagement of such work, but my mind was… elsewhere. Large themes, often layered in dogma and didacticism, seldom seem contemplative to me. The study of the subtleties of light and shadow, the interaction of unmoving objects, and the ever changing spaces that each thing holds, are aspects of my visual world that I have consistently found to be more interesting than anything else.