The following essay was developed as a result of a long standing illustration series I completed in the fall of 2017, titled Weekly Still Life. For a period of nine months I set up a still life each week and did a series of iterations in a variety of mediums and styles each week until I felt either I or the form was exhausted. After 31 weeks the series came to a close with a total of 100 illustrations in tow.
The definition of a still life is generally a work of art that depicts inanimate subject matter, usually commonplace objects, be they natural or man-made. Anyone who has taken a basic drawing class or casually strolled through a museum has experienced this definition. But I’d like to briefly propose a new definition for a still life, a definition that I came to understand through the repetitive process of creating still lives on a weekly basis for almost nine months. A still life is not a genre but a process of art making that allows for the re-seeing of the inanimate mundane objects we surround ourselves with. It’s a re-seeing or imbuing of value and meaning brought about through a discovery that is triggered when we engage with objects via ripping them from their expected contexts and placing them within new ones. In creating a still life I believe one transfigures an object from mundane to mystical, simply by arranging it on a table or surface. For example, Paul Cézanne, a post impressionist artist known for still lives of bowls of peaches on cloth-draped tables, worked to find a new depth within something as common as a peach by taking it from its intended use and approaching it formally on a surface. Thanks to these explorations images such as a common fruit bowl now sit within the lexicon of art history. We can’t even conjure up the term artist in a conversation without being bombarded by the image of a painter painstakingly rendering a still life stroke by stroke. Through the sheer attention and brevity artist such as Cézanne gave to such a domestic form as that of fruit in a bowl sitting upon a table these forms have now garnered the immense value of being a defining figure within the semiotics of art as a whole. In Lawrence Weiner’s book Something to Put Something On, Weiner describes the moment he became an artist as the moment he placed something upon a surface, such as a support, plinth, or table. By placing something on a surface, he says that it is imbued with value, a sense of importance created from the new context of the surface. One artwork by Weiner that sums up these thoughts on the transformative power of context is What Is Set upon the Table Sits upon the Table, which includes a limestone slab sitting vertically upon the center of a sturdy wooden table. The piece pares down the still life to its essence, endowing even a slab of stone with new meaning.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger and media theorist Marshall McLuhan both explore the meaning of the object in ways that might render the still life a process rather than a genre, as I experienced in the Weekly Still Life series. In his book Being and Time, Heidegger divulges two qualities of an object: readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. When an object is ready-to-hand, it means that its purpose lies in its use and how we may take advantage of it, while an object that is present-to-hand has been distanced from its intended use, and in doing so has revealed itself to be more. We can easily apply these ideas to the objects in a still life—through active engagement, they go from ready-to-hand to present-to-hand. While a table in a still life functionally supports the objects on its surface, ready-to-hand, it is also the catalyst of the objects’ new context once they are placed upon it, present-to-hand.
McLuhan’s thoughts on the term figure/ground from his book Laws of Media: The New Science sit nicely alongside Heidegger’s framework. Using this term, McLuhan describes all media as comprised by a foreground, figure and background, ground, as well as its properties and context. Similarly to Heidegger’s thoughts, figure and ground have the inherent ability to switch, and in that switch, bring forward unseen values and potentials. This is like the Rubin vase, the image of a vase that upon second glance is revealed to be two faces. Or as an example that better fits our process of re-contextualizing, when a species of insect is collected from its habitat and pinned in a glass box in a classroom. In the case of a still life, the unseen forms around us are taken out of the literal and contextual background and placed within the foreground, like a limestone slab upon a surface. As I dismantled the still lives, I created, I could sense a change in the objects I had just spent the last hour drawing. Through an active attentiveness and appreciative commitment to these things, they would reveal themselves to me, their general surface peeling away to expose layers of meaning caked on like the paint on Cézanne’s canvas. By taking these objects from the background to the foreground of my life, I found a form of literal love for these literal things. When I started Weekly Still Life, I was at one of the lowest points in my life, but through using still lives as a tool, I was able to get back on my feet by paying more attention to the dust-covered things that had accumulated. I was able to find their true value, and in their value I was able to appreciate my own. I wonder if maybe considering the still life as a process might help others too. I wonder if through the simple, yet gratifying act of arranging things neatly on a surface, we could redefine the way we value the world.