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Insignificant Objects: 3 Questions

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Still life with a fish and cat
Clara Peeters: Still Life of Fish and Cat, 160

I’m more of a landscape girl myself.

I’ve always found still lifes a little marginal, a sideshow in the carnival of art. But recently I’ve been rethinking my position.

Why, I wondered, my resistance? Why still life in the first place? What are these pictures really about—if anything? What is their allure?

Or, put another way, what do we look at when we look at a still life?

Why still life?

The genre has been with us for a long time: Paintings of fruits and game appear in the houses and shops of Pompeii and Herculaneum; objects—flowers, vases and other vessels, coins—were painted in the borders of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The subjects were there, but marginal to the real action of religious paintings.

With the adoption of new oil painting techniques (pioneered in the 16th century by Jan van Eyck), painting took a leap forward in its ability to represent the material world. John Berger here: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.” It was the perfect medium for depicting stuff.

By the 17th century, the stuff started accumulating, particularly in the Low Countries. Newly independent from Catholic Spain, the Dutch set about transforming themselves into an economic powerhouse and Europe’s undisputed center of mercantile trade. Material goods came flooding in from all over the world—Ming vases, Anatolian carpets, Venetian stemware, those notorious tulips—and Dutch artists recorded it all. These luxury items populate the stage set in the genre paintings of Gerard ter Borch and Geritt Dou and Vermeer and play the lead in the still lifes of Willem Clausz Heda and Clara Peeters and Pieter Claesz.

I’ve long thought that hoarding—the compulsive need to acquire stuff—is the perfect malady for an industrialized, capitalist society. By that logic, still life might just be the perfect art form. On one end of the spectrum, hoarding is a disordered response to a consumption-driven society; on the other, still life—fine art pieces, Martha Stewart Living and Dwell spreads, Instagram posts—straightens the place up. In one case, we look on in horror; in the other, with lust.

Insignificant Objects: Jan Groover--What do I resist?

With photography, I didn’t have to make things up, everything was already there.”—Jan Groover

In 1987, Andy Grundberg, reviewing Jan Groover’s MoMA exhibition, described the subjects of her scullery photographs as “insignificant objects” She was, he continued, “fashion[ing] breathtaking images from little more than thin air.” Grundberg concluded the review: “Groover’s quest to make form independent and sufficient succeeds.”

His judgment squared with Groover’s own sense of the matter. “Formalism is everything,” she says in her video profile Jan Groover: Tilting at Space. “It directs people away from just total content.” Or as her husband, painter Bruce Boice, puts it, “Jan’s photos never mean anything.”

But photographs are tethered to the physical world, and Grundberg goes on to wonder, “Can photographs truly dispense with the world of material things—‘content,’ if you will—to concentrate solely on matters of form? Groover is not the first photographer to raise the issue. Yet where Stieglitz, Strand, and Weston fought their battles on the ground of abstraction, photographing clouds and shadows and sand as metaphors for human existence, Groover stakes her claim squarely within the world of objects.”

Groover, who started as a painter—an abstract painter at that—was exacting in her use of form and color. Elsewhere in Tilting at Space, she says, “Once you have content, you don’t need to think about content anymore. You have to think about the picture.” And think about the picture she did: Hers are formally beautiful, the compositions elegant and the prints, first color and later platinum-palladium, exquisite. So it’s clear, both from Groover’s own words and the even more telling evidence of the photographs themselves, that her driving interest was the deployment of objects in the composition and the investigation of pictorial space.

All that said—and I do hate to quibble—we do take pictures of things, Grundberg’s “content, if you will.” For Groover, that meant kitchen-sink things—the objects that have served as the working tools of women for centuries—and she gave these insignificant things the royal treatment and, in so doing elevated them, whether she intended to or no.

Here’s the moment when I have to ask whether I’ve been dismissing still life all these years because of its whiff of the domestic. A feminist from early on, I read Betty Friedan in junior high school and wanted nothing to do with housework. So, what was I to make of pictures of foodstuffs and tableware? What grand meaning could be discovered in the domestic realm?

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