Stillness is the move
Far from lifeless, artist's still-life photographs take an active look at the act of looking
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This article was published 10/03/2016 (2577 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Among the genres of western image-making — landscape, portraiture, abstraction, etc. — still life has been an unlikely hotbed of artistic innovation. In quiet arrangements of fruit and crockery, artists have found a surprisingly versatile platform from which to advance and hone their craft, working first to perfect and then transcend the observation of everyday life.
In Greece in the fifth century BC, Zeuxis painted grapes so real they tricked a bird, but Parrhasius painted a cloth so real it suckered Zeuxis. In the 1600s, hyper-realism reached a baroque crescendo in the still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age. Photography moved quickly into territory once dominated by painting: in 1826 or ’27, Nicéphore Niépce trained his lens on a serving table, producing one of the oldest surviving photographic images. With cameras doing the work of realism, 19th-century painters pushed the genre towards abstraction. In Cézanne’s still lifes, light and air were as substantial as his apples and the tables they sat on, and there’s a direct line from these to the radically reconfigured café-table scenes you find in early collages by Picasso and Braque. Even now, both innovators and traditionalists continually revisit and reimagine the form.
Granted, you don’t really need to know all that to appreciate Winnipeg-born, Chicago-based photographer Laura Letinsky’s distinctive take on still life. Elegant, subdued and gently but relentlessly off-putting, her large-format photographs have an arresting presence that seems out of step with time. At the same time, though, art history suffuses her meticulously constructed scenes as fully as the softened daylight does the sparse interiors she photographs.
On view since last month at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery, an exhibition spanning 15 years finds Letinsky at the forefront of a long line of artists who’ve looked critically and playfully at the act of looking itself.
An anxious thread runs through the still-life tradition, which Letinsky picks up on. In baroque paintings, opulent spreads were laced with reminders of decay and death — a rotting peach, a butchered rabbit, a human skull. Letinsky’s table linens are creased and soiled, the cake half-eaten, and the residue of red wine clings to the wall of a squat glass tumbler. Crumbs are everywhere, a premonition of ants, if not of death, exactly.
Her environments are nearly featureless, with empty space and even light evoking the overcast hush of painter Giorgio Morandi. Letinsky’s arrangements are notably unsettled, though. Off-kilter camera angles and careful manipulations of size and placement create funhouse perspectives, messing with our depth perception and lending the works an air of instability. Apples at the corners of a table seem to rush forward, occupying the same plane; other fruit looks poised to roll straight off the edge. The wonky tabletops are an amplification of Cézanne, while Letinsky’s most recent images — documentation of disorienting, simulated still lifes collaged from folded paper and photo cutouts — recreate cubism’s simultaneous perspectives in “real” space.
Her pictures feel contemporary and distinctive despite but also because of their historical allusions. No single reference overwhelms, but each is there to select and savour alongside the work’s wealth of bewitching formal devices. They lend it a feeling of decadence that nicely offsets the barrenness, uncertainty and chilly calculation that characterizes so much of Letinsky’s work.
Letinsky will be conducting a five-day photography workshop, Shallow, Neither Flat nor Deep, for School of Art students and a limited number of community members. It takes place at ARTlab, 180 Dafoe Rd., Monday, March 14, to Friday, March 18. Cost is $25 for students or $100 for community members. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 204-474-9367 to register.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.
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