Still Life: Contemporary Painters

Image of Still Life: Contemporary Painters
Release Date: 
November 9, 2021
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

The latest in a series of contemporary Australian fine art compilations, Still Life joins Creswell Bell’s shelf alongside Clay and A Painted Landscape. What is under the hood this time is everything from flowers, to balloons, to beer cans, to pantry storage. Still life did not go out of style with the 17th century Dutch Golden Age. The genre is alive and well, revved up here by 41 representatives.

Creswell Bell introduces us to her project in a well written, if succinct, one-page letter. She explains a brief history of the still life genre: from its origins as a tool for developing technique —a means to a more sophisticated painting or sculpture, all the way to becoming a well-crafted end in and of itself.

Still life (the genre) has suffered a stigma, and still does in effect, as the hobbyist genre of female artists. In other words, lowly—only just barely considered art at all. “L’insulte” extraordinaire! Still Life embraces the genre’s underdog qualities, and subtly shifts its overall perception. Almost as a Public Relations specialist charged with giving the genre’s image a make-over. The reader is invited to sit back, relax, and enjoy the variety in this visual language of objects, “as a portal to another place or time . . . a glimpse into our very existence.”

Each artist comes to life in six-page allotments. They talk about their background in art, influences, and preferred techniques in excerpts written by Creswell Bell. Stunning full color reproductions of their works accompany each artist. Because this is a book about Australian still life, each artist offers up what could be particularly Australian about their work. Color, light, mood, history, culture, the interpretation on the Australian theme varies widely and yet it is still . . . still life. 

Six pages might not seem very many, yet there is a level of intimacy each artist conveys. This could be explained by the extremely personal nature of still life. We learn something about a person simply through the objects they select, the stories they tell through their artwork, the things that make them come alive. Remarkably all of this is transferred through these pages. We get to know these folks on a personal level, cutting to the chase of what makes them tick.

Some knew from a young age they would be artists. Some went to university to study something “practical” like journalism or finance. Some started out as portrait painters or animators and switched to still life in their mature years once they discovered the emotional content that objects could hold all on their own, without the explicit presence of a human figure.

Some artists only work from real life with natural light, others are making use of modern technologies like photography and artificial light. Still others go purely from imagination and memory, directly onto their canvas of choice with no preparation of any kind, working as their intuition guides them. Controlling the scene is boring to some, paramount to others.

Oil paint is a common medium, but others prefer acrylic, watercolor, or include collage and multimedia to convey their image. Some styles tilt toward hyper-realism and others are boarder-line abstract, with everything in between. Some artists have to have a personal meaning or symbolism in their objects to be attracted to it. Others focus on beauty, color, composition, texture, and mood and eschew a narrative of any kind.

Reading about this breadth of diversity in the production of art, it is clearly not a one-size-fits-all kind of pursuit. If nothing else, this fact should be enough to get people out of their heads and into the studio, if so inspired, and don’t hold back in doing their artistic “thing”—there is no right way.

And still life is a great place to start. It’s readily available. Just look around. A lamp? A pile of laundry? Grandma’s antique clock? “. . . these familiar objects in the painter’s sphere . . . whether they are jugs, or fruit, these objects were handled by the artist, considered and truly observed. Still life is simple, but also complex, and it is emotional but also detached—this conflict is fascinating.” There is never a lack of things to engage with. They are things one will spend time with anyway, so why not paint them!

As for the Australian edge of Still Life, why would one seek Australian role models? Because, say artist after artist in a comment that finally is something that all of them agree on, Australians are unpretentious. Who cares what the Germans push for, what the French obsess about, what the Italians prioritize, or where the classical Greeks are lurking around? For that matter, what difference does it make what the neighbor thinks or what anybody thinks? Take the time, revel in the right side of the brain, and something beautiful and satisfying will come of it. If one needs a kick in the pants to get going, Still Life is it.