In Durham, a surfeit of still lifes

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 10:17 AM

“Cynthia Aldrich:  The Still Life Reinterpreted,” Durham Arts Council,
Ella Fountain Pratt Legacy Gallery, 120 Morris St., through July 6.

“Local Flavor,” Pleiades Gallery, 109 E. Chapel Hill St.,
Durham, through May 10.

It is becoming a habit, working the art scene in downtown Durham. This past week I was back at it and Cynthia Aldrich’s exhibition of still lifes in three dimensions started me thinking about the genre and some of its history; it also sent me on a still life search in other galleries. A still life is usually a picture of inanimate objects; they are still.  Sometimes a dead animal or cut flowers are included; the animal no longer moves and the cut flowers will quickly die.
As a genre of art still life has been around since ancient times. Pictures of food were on the walls of Egyptian tombs in the belief they would become real once the deceased had reached the other side; they were also on the walls of the patrician homes in ancient Pompeii. 
Still life came into its own in 16th century European art. Many of the paintings had religious meanings, but basically they reflected the artists’ abilities to paint realistically.  It was a matter of great pride to paint glass we could see through and porcelain that caught the light.
The most common objects of nature were symbolic: the rose meant love, the poppy sleep or death, the butterfly resurrection and the ant hard work. When a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch was added, the message was about mortality. Although never considered the highest level of art by the salon, still lifes were very popular and by the end of the 18th century most religious meanings had given way to aesthetics. While considered a bit old-fashioned, the still life continues to fascinate contemporary artists and a little over a year ago the N.C. Museum of Art had a huge exhibition of still lifes, from 16th century traditional examples to the 21st, with one still life installation spilling out over the floor and filling an entire room. 
Aldrich’s exhibition offers her versions of still life through her chosen medium of clay.  In an area separated from the second floor gallery by a glass door (which is unlocked) is a small wall where Aldrich has mounted her show. She has chosen both very traditional subjects and ones with contemporary motifs to move from the flat canvas to the three-dimensional world.
One modern theme is in “Stilled Lives” where a gold funerary urn, surrounded by a pile of small revolvers, occupies a narrow shelf decorated with tiny machine guns. With a nod to mortality, we see in “Still — Life,” three ceramic leaves attached to the wall above the shelf, one acting as host to an insect which is eating away.
And there are the ever present pears, lined up like soldiers who look more like comedians than disciplined troops.
It is obvious Aldrich is a student of art history; some of her objects represent museum shelves of ancient Cycladic figures. My favorite is “Cezanne in Clay” (Fruit and jug on Table). Cezanne made dozens of still lifes, using them to experiment with the illusion of space in a painting. In his attempts to dislodge one point perspective from the canvas he tilted tables, bunched up table cloths so they looked like waves, painted fruit with all its irregularities and his bottles as if they had been created by beginners. In her “Cezanne” Aldrich has captured the older artist’s ideas, but with her own twist. Her work feels smart and new and it may set you on a quest, like me, to search out other examples.
I stopped in Through This Lens Gallery and looked at the experimental photographs of Bernard Herman (the exhibition is down now) and found he had created a very traditional still life with bottles of various shapes using a process that begins with a black and white negative, scratching it unmercifully, painting on it and then developing it. The objects look like vaporous forms which could be either coming into focus or vanishing before our eyes. 
Moving on to Pleiades Gallery I found a new group show, “Local Flavor.” Pleiades is a cooperative and the artists decide the themes for their group shows. The gallery is a showplace for the 10 artists in the co-op and coming up with objects that fit these various themes demonstrates how committed they are to hard work. 
I slowly wandered through the show, which is highlighted in the window space, stopping at Jim Lee’s photographs of the guts of a downtown motel with its cubicles of color exposed to the wrecking ball, and Darius Quarles’ painted scenes of Durham set against a backdrop of handmade maps of the city. For Quarles, Durham is all about tobacco but the scenes are contemporary and most of the manufacture of tobacco products has disappeared; what remains is the original site of the American Tobacco Company restored. 
Today those buildings have become a campus of office, restaurant and recreational spaces with the company’s water tower looming majestically over it all.  As I moved along I found what I was looking for, a contemporary still life.  Painted by Kim Wheaton, here was an unmistakably Southern still life. Titled “Local Flavor” it is an image of a Mason jar with a handle filled with sweet tea, displayed against a backdrop of collaged menus, with offerings only found in a Southern restaurant.
Before I ended my art day I crossed over to Ninth Street Bakery and found its glass cases filled with savory pies, cup cakes and cookies in careful rows. They reminded me of Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) still lifes of baked goods that put him into the art history books. Thiebaud’s models were the counters of mass produced bakery goods found all over America. Ninth Street’s home baked pastries are anything but mass produced but I was looking for still lifes and I found them here.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.