Dating back to 17th-century European painting, the vanitas tradition is a reminder of mortality and an admonition to reject the vanity of the material world in favor of spiritual values. Still life paintings of food, flowers, and animals in various states of bloom and decay are often the subject of these works, and many included direct references to death, such as skulls. Michael Wesely and Kim Joon both use innovative photographic techniques to render images of fleeting beauty in 21st-century still life works. Wesely, who is best known for creating years-long photo-documentation of urban building projects, employs an extended shutter speed to show yellow tulips in bud, bloom, and disintegration in a single image, their entire lifespan captured permanently in the photographic frame. In Kim Joon’s surreal still life arrangements, nature and artifice are fused, as ceramic material tableware has morphed into human body parts—an assortment of legs, arms, and torsos digitally tattooed with designs from prominent ceramic firms, such as Villeroy & Boch, Herend, and Royal Copenhagen. Fragile-Herend pays homage to his wife’s own china, which the artist accidentally broke, while alluding to the vanity of valuing material, luxury-brand possessions. Here, desire and beauty are ingrained in the fragile, fragmented body.
Sarah Smith’s large-scale, composite gold leaf drawings on paper extend the vanitas message to examine the relationship between material excess and environmental destruction. Recede from Me, for example, depicts a leopard (an endangered, exotic animal) and an eagle (the national bird of the US):
“In my drawing he’s caught in a trap,” explains Smith, “set by and guarded by an enormous eagle. The leopard is simultaneously disintegrating into the land, turning to stone, to dust, receding with the tide to mix with the polluted waters that separate the eagle’s domain with the leopard’s. At the same time, he’s being pulled heavenward, disintegrating bit by bit, his fur getting caught in the branches on the way, to mix with the dust of the firmament. The wing and radiating lines spiraling out of the topmost decorative element symbolize a kind of spiritual/elemental transformation.”
A surface transformation is also occurring, as Smith deliberately corrodes the shiny gold surface of her works with an acid wash. “The oxidation illustrates pollution, disintegration, transformation of elements, changes, and the passage of time,” says the artist.
Like his fellow members of the Cracking Art Group, Marco Veronese shares Sarah Smith’s ecological concerns, especially, as he says, “the importance of animals and the drama of the threat to their survival.” Using imagery from nature, such as shells, butterflies, and appropriated female portraits from Renaissance masterpieces, Veronese covers the surfaces of these works with silicon, a material both natural and artificial that transforms his photographs into three-dimensional wall sculptures. Alchemy—formal, visual, and temporal—animates Veronese’s affirmations of aesthetic vitality and the interdependence of all life forms. Sharing his name with the Venetian Renaissance master painter, Veronese says “I use female portraits imbued with contemporary beauty as symbols of life, juxtaposing them with butterflies, which are symbols of spirituality and the Resurrection. As well as evoking beauty, they evoke the fragile and ephemeral nature of life.”
Still life and portraiture are combined in Belgian conceptual artist Carsten Holler’s series, Canaries. Best known for spectacular, multi-sensory installations, Holler uses a traditional photogravure technique to create detailed, delicate images of his own creations: the canaries are actually hybrids bred by the artist, who is an ornithologist and earned a doctorate in agricultural science. Because these birds are sterile, they are the first and last of their kind, replicated only in Holler’s artwork. The artist grants his avian subjects an aesthetic longevity, but his process—a combination of bio-art and photography—begs the question of the relationship between the creator and his creations: what responsibility does Holler have towards what he has made real, and then aestheticized?
A multi-part self-portrait by Cuban-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons invokes communal responsibility while alluding to the fragility of status and self. Prayer for Obama depicts the artist holding a bouquet of flowers and a small, carved bust of the US president, sometimes cradled carefully between her hands, like a relic or doll. Shown here with white face paint, the artist often alludes to the wide range of cultural and religious traditions, which, as a member of the Afro-Cuban diaspora, she is heir to: Christianity, voodoo, nature worship, and more. The combination of representational elements in Prayer for Obama asserts the ephemerality of power and of life: still, Campos-Pons suggests, we should celebrate, protect, and hope.
Sarah Smith (American)
Recede from Me, 2008
Composite metal leaf, corrosive, ink, and pencil on paper
Soon Come Star, 2011
Composite metal leaf, corrosive, ink, and pencil on paper mounted to wood
Carsten Holler (Belgian)
Gravure in gold on paper
Canary #3, 2009
Canary #6, 2009
Canary #3, 2009
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Cuban)
Prayer for Obama I, 2008
Kim Joon (Korean)
Fragile Herend, 2010
Michael Wesley (German)
Tulpen, 20.5 – 31.5.2006, 2006
Marco Veronese (Italian)
Photograph, silicone in Plexiglass case
Fossilo Contemporanei, 2006
Photograph, silicone in Plexiglass case