Woman (Red Bow), 2012. Image © Elad Lassry, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
A condensed genealogy of the contemporary still life could go like this: Christopher Williams throws authorship out the window by hiring commercial photographers to create his deadpan faux advertising still lifes; Roe Ethridge turns the slightly schizophrenic juxtapositions that commercial photography schedules entail into an artistic strategy; Elad Lassry pilfers the generic glossiness of commodities somewhere between the present, past and kitschy retro-chic; Lucas Blalock deconstructs dollar-store objects through a combination of in-camera techniques and self-aware Photoshop naivety; Sam Falls begins to paint both digitally and physically over his arrangements of fruit, tyres and cinderblock. Next, Joshua Citarella takes it a step further by incorporating false digital artefacts into his chaotically fragmented compositions of melons, frames, rocks, obelisks and mirrors; Darren Harvey-Regan hand-paints the trademark grey-and-white Photoshop background grid over found sculptures; Kate Steciw stops taking photographs and digitally distorts stock images she sources online; Takeshi Murata disposes with the camera and creates witty, sardonic compositions with Cinema 4D; Artie Vierkant jettisons representation and uses Photoshop to create abstractions laser-cut into what he calls Image Objects.
231,639,853, 2012. From the series Combination Game. Image © Joshua Citarella.
These artists allow us to witness the evacuation and fragmentation of the object and the emergence of the tool as the primary focus of this new hybrid practice. Perhaps tool-objects could be a more adequate way of describing where still life photography has found itself - objects that reflect traces that tools have left on their surface. Conversely, these tools also have bits of objects left over them, like a dirty knife or a painter's brush. It is increasingly difficult to apply the formula of object-camera-image to still life made today. The arithmetic of the past has been substituted with complex algebra that invariably produces remainders and repeating fractions. Images have become functions of objects, as opposed to direct representative relationships.
Almost all the artists are North American by birth or adoption. The European tradition of still life has a long and loaded history tied to religious symbolism, social distinction and various guild systems. By contrast, the North American still life has a stronger connection to capitalism and the commodity. This relationship informs the categories of advertising and commercial photography, with capitalist forms of photography primarily concerned with adding value to objects through the use of technical skills. How many times have we bought an object according to an attractive photograph on its container, only to find a sad artefact on the inside? E-commerce has grown in the last decade and objects that have flourished alongside it have been those that translate seductively into images.
Bouquet. Image © Lucas Blalock.
The question of still life needs to be rephrased. Instead of asking why commercial photography is penetrating the art world, we should be asking why the commodity form within photography is experiencing its strongest crisis in the medium's history. Never before have commodities been so distorted, clone-stamped, free-transformed, over-sharpened and falsely masked. Considering the current worldwide economic crisis, one could suppose that this type of image-making is indicative of a more widespread disillusionment with consumer culture, and the interest in outdated aesthetics along with design that has passed its best-by date seems to confirm this scepticism towards the seduction of mass-produced goods.
Almost all technical advertising photography involving reflective surfaces, such as cars, jewellery and beverages, have migrated to the digital domain. Cars used to be photographed in massive aircraft hangars full of different-shaped lights and reflectors with pools to achieve the popular floating vehicle effect. What once took an incredible expenditure of material energy can now be created on a computer. Most advertising agencies describe the images they sell as a ratio of computer-generated imagery, photography and retouching. These categories call for different amounts of specialised labour whose costs have been following a downward trajectory.
Fruit and Coconut. Image © Sam Falls.
When photography replaced painting as the primary medium for representation, art historians argue it allowed painting to go through a process of self-exploration, allowing painters to concentrate on the formal qualities of paint. Colour, consistency and composition became acceptable subjects for artistic contemplation. As social networks and digital-imaging technologies are replacing photography as the primary medium for representation, perhaps photography is also beginning to embark on a similar project of introspection. This would certainly explain the current trend of new formalism that broadly describes self-conscious photography about photography. As painting was able to shed its cumbersome and staid relationship to refinement and taste, one can hope photography will also traverse a similar period of reckless endangerment, experimentation and self-affirmation.
Lorenzo Durantini curated the recent group show at Flowers East, Brush it in, a look at contemporary still life
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