This was the hardest to research as I wanted to look at artists five years out of Art School just finding their own voice and gaining a market.
Searching online it was easy to find expensive contemporary still life paintings through commercial sites such as Saatchi Art with still lifes selling for up to $9,000. But the artists were (usually) in their 50’s and this would only show me what was commercially successful not what was artistically successful.
If the equivalent of the early Impressionist are out there breaking rules and living in a garret their work won’t feature on the Saatchi site.
I tried all sorts of search terms for young contemporary still life artists such as ‘Best young still life artists of 2015’ (sale price is a commercial filter but I wanted an artistic filter so was looking for a list by a recognised art expert) but found nothing.
So, even though it’s a bit of a random, I decided to go to Art Schools, find this years degree show for Fine Art, put ‘Still Life’ in the search box and see what comes up. And take the first three without filtering so I didn’t influence my results with personal taste.
Random, but any student who has done three years training and specialised in still life (as their final piece) should throw up something interesting about the genre?!
This proved really, really, hard…
Firstly most of the universities didn’t have an online gallery of their final show degree students and the yearly shows online were just directions to the venue and some advertising shots left over from the shows which had now closed.
When I did find final year students’ degree work it was very difficult to find any still lifes.
There were plenty of traditional still lifes (pre nineteenth century representational bunches of flowers in a vase or fruit in a basket) on the expensive non degree art ‘school’ websites – of the no qualifications necessary, everybody welcome and we will teach you to draw like a master if you give us £500 and study for a term.
So, I’ve learnt that still life doesn’t have a very high status in the academic artistic world, at least not among young art students. Whatever they’re about their end goal doesn’t seem to be painting pretty flowers in a vase.
In contrast the commercial sites show there is a market for more edgy still lifes with a social comment, like a bed strewn with clothes and pants or a close up of a wedding table jammed with expensive crockary and half a person standing at the side. Both picture planes were crammed full of objects right to the edge of, and breaking out of, the frame and looked like ‘found’ still lifes. The clothes looked like they could be the woman’s bedroom and ‘The Perfect Hostess’ which shows wedding table (by Rebecca Scott, 2006, from her series The Perfect Life) is a tight shot of a ‘perfect’ wedding table piled high with plates and silver cutlery.
(1) “Rebecca Scott, 2006, In her series The Perfect Life (which includes paintings called Oh, it’s a perfect day, and The Perfect Christmas Dinner), Rebecca Scott’s work skewers the “perfect” lives found on the pages of women’s magazines and catalogues. Scott questions the fictional notion that by buying some new tableware she could or should make her home perfect. Scott recognises that these illustrations of domestic bliss are aimed at her, not her male partner. It is her job as a woman, the Perfect Hostess, to provide this unobtainable ideal. She paints these readymade images that hope to instruct her and other women to buy such wares and in doing so disrupts what would otherwise be traditional still lifes.”
And there is a big ‘amateur’ market in traditional still life training as the internet is jammed with non degree Art ‘Schools’ that offer weekend, week and termly courses and feature traditional still lifes heavily in their advertising material.
In the end after a couple of hours looking I only found two examples of final year degree students still lifes.
Manchester Met and Slade.
Sophie Chen (Degree show Fine Art Manchester Met: 2016)
My practise involves selecting and depicting in oil paint still life objects of culture from our everyday. I intend to provide a re-enchantment of the things that are overlooked. Initially selecting the objects through instinct, filtering the material world around me. Thinking about the properties of these objects and how they lend themselves to being painted: how they occupy the picture plane, colour, form, shape and line.
Purge, Nicholas McLeod2016, acrylic on linen, 30 x 36.5 cm.
I found these very, very interesting… firstly both are fresh and alive (not copies of traditional still lifes) involving ideas and a developed visual language.
This was in direct contrast to all the low to middle priced commercial art I found (which obviously sells) which were technically brilliant but ’empty’ copies of traditional still lifes such as realistic and aesthetically pleasing arrangements of objects, Impressionistic, Cubist and what I call ‘Warhole’ still lifes… extreme close up of objects like a coke can or pair of trainers (usually sketchilly painted in bright acrylic). I couldn’t fault their technical skill but they didn’t engage me and lacked soul.
(Which I know isn’t an artistic term but I can’t think of how else to put it.)
Wheres the two examples of student work above are fresh and captivating. Alive and immediate.
So, to the question of how do young contemporary artists differ from traditional practice in terms of subject matter, materials and composition?
They both conform to the definition of still life as being arranged objects… one a single object the other a collection.
Sophie Chen is part of a modern movement where the artist selects a single object with a psychological purpose in mind. In her case to ‘reinvigorate’ everyday objects… to turn design into art and make us see the world around us with new eyes.
With a different purpose, but equally immediately, Peter Jones – an established artist – paints old stuffed monkeys – soft toys at the end of their lifespan – (one of the Guardian top ten practising artists 2013 :
(1) “Animals have always been depicted in art, showing the wealth of the owner – horses and hunting dogs for the rich, along with heaps of dead rabbits. Foxes were seen as cunning, a randy goat stood in for the devil and a lamb for Christ. And Peter Jones often paints lambs and bunnies, but his major fascination lies with monkeys; not real ones but vintage stuffed toys on the verge of falling apart. Monkeys were traditionally painted to hint at the beast within each man or woman, our link to untamed nature and the sexual danger within us. Jones’s Ollie and all his kin are nearing the end of their lifespan, worn out from love (or neglect), and their vulnerability is doubled because, as still-life subjects, they lie ready for inspection.”
Taking a single object as a subject with ‘blank’ negative space around it seems to be a new developement in still life and intuitively feels as though it has it’s roots in Warhole’s close up paintings of Coke cans etc.
Nicholas McCleod takes a conventional grouping of plates and bottles…
Sophie Chan paints with oil (she doesn’t say what on but it looks like board) which is a traditional medium.
Nicholas McCleod paints with acrylic on linen. Acylic is traditional from the fifties and linen is unusual (maybe because it is expensive?) but I would suppose acts as a very fine canvas allowing highly detailed work?
Sophie Chan uses elements of traditional composition with the object (traditionally a group of objects rather than a single object, such as bunch of flowers) surrounded by monochromatic negative space. It has elements of geometric design which reminded me of Viennese Art Nouveau – clean strong lines and geometric shapes such as the different size triangular corners of negative space [the ‘corners’ are all linked by being the same tone] and a triangular book with straight sides). She uses linear perspective on the book but no colour perspective on the background just flat negative space like Patrick Cauldfield.
So a mixture of compositional elements that force us to focus on the book and think about it’s inherent beauty… it’s shape, colour and the texture of its surface. And in seeing a functional object anew it reinvigorates our whole sense of the world around us.
Nicholas McLeod uses modern comositional elements such as making the objects break the picture frame.
‘Purge’ reminds me of an old black and white photgraphic negative. The objects are not the focus of attention but the aesthetic arrangement of positive and negative shapes. It turns the mundane into the beautiful and yet we are still aware of the objects. It’s almost an abstract painting made out of a conventional still life composition.
After a while you don’t notice the objects you are just lost in the moment.
Had this been painted realistically with colour and all the ‘traditional’ compositional elements it would have been a traditional still life. His treament has taken us away from the objects and to a place of meditation.
I don’t think the big difference is the subject matter, the materials or the composition (if you take composition to mean the application of a visual language and artistic technique).
It is the intention of the artist which has changed.
Having an intention has always been part of great art. Young artists today are reflecting their artistic and social world just as the young Impressionists and Cubists did.
Nicholas McCleod is working in the tradition of an artist investigating the aesthetics of looking (like the Cubists) while Sophie Chan is teaching us to see beauty in the ordinary (just as the Impressionists taught us to ‘see’ in a new way.)
The big difference is that the world (both artistic and social) has changed so the artistic dialogue has changed. And when you look at young contemporary still life artists you are being included in a creative dialogue which is fresh and invigorating.
The best will stand the test of time like Manet or Poussin.
They have soul.