Michael Young

Dead Life

The still life has always presented an interesting problem for art criticism. It is both the height of technical skill in painting and the lowest on the rung of the genres. It seems to say everything about the mastery of the medium and offer little for the interpretive narrative. It is the closest to the everyday scene of life and the furthest from implying the involvement of a human being. The objects depicted are more real than reality and blatantly artificial as illusion. Since the 19th century, the still life has found a spot in a particular room in every major gallery collecting western art and yet they also appear comfortable among the kitsch crap that is collected by my aunt. They are there in the formation of modern art from Cézanne to Cubism and yet the idea of painting domestic objects seems as compulsory an academic training exercise as any introduction to painting can.

This inability to locate our cultural stance on the still life is a good sign that as a genre it is far from morté as its name implies. The still life lives as a mode of aesthetics that continually refreshes itself under the name of realism.

Young Ayata, Still Life with Lobster Silver Juge Large Berkenmeyer Fruit Bowl Violin Books and Sinew Object after Pieter Claesz 1631-2014

Realism is not reality. It is the aesthetic tension created between reality and its representation. A tension that often deals directly with how to make the familiar, the everyday, the quotidian, become strange. When the still life is functioning in its most provocative manner not only the objects themselves weird, but the sense of the real is called into question. One begins to think differently about all the objects that populate the world within reach; the world that is on the table right in front of you, right now.

The tension is between the table and the tableau. The object you can touch, handle, and turn is no longer available for manipulation and instead an extremely abused visual presentation is given through the painted representation. The abuse is both on the objects and on the observer. Nothing is left alone. Glasses are tipped, broken, partially filled. Bread is crumbled, not sliced. Oysters are shucked and slimy. Lobsters and crabs are turned upside down to expose the grotesque intricacies of their underbellies. Lemons are likely the most abused object in the history of the still life in their sliced, peeled, unfurled state, allowing the trapped liquid of the citrus to glow as a secondary light source. This is not even to mention weird things like gold encrusted nautilus shells, decorated Chinese porcelain, and gothic goblets. Whatever it is that a still life painting is collecting into the space of a single domestic table, it is a highly staged collision of objects.1

Regarding the observer, these paintings become visual objects, tableau. They never appear as deep perspective images looking through a window out on the world beyond. It is much closer to an experience of things pushing into our reality than the experience of calmly looking out to a world structured through narrative. One important aspect in this is the absence of the human in the still life. It is not as simple as just a lack of represented human bodies. The absence of the human is more ontological. Even though the things depicted are extremely cultured, from crafted objects to the food prepared for consumption, the human is absent from the scene in crucial ways. These paintings present relations between objects themselves, not the relation between humans and objects. If we are to include the human, these painting do not privilege our perspective, but instead place us on equal footing in relation to the object collection. It is as if we are spying on a private world of objects messing around with other objects that couldn’t care less about what we think is going on.

The repetitive recurrence of similar objects, like the peeled lemon mentioned above, within still life painting is not some random fluke, nor is it that there was some single retailer providing objects for a fetish clientele. The still life2 represents a century-long, cross-cultural conversation between painters. It is as disciplinary as it gets. Each painting is a challenge to other painters regarding the conditions on which the real can become other. This is why I have hesitated on demarcating the high points of late 16th century Spanish, mid-17th century Dutch, late 19th century Post-Impressionism, or early 20th century Cubism. These are all phases in one continuously developing argument about what it is that happens when painting represents reality. All of them throw down the gauntlet to the medium of painting itself. All of them push at the tension between reality and its representation.

If I was to speculate on the current life of still life paintings, it would require a discussion of photography. In the time we have, a single artist will hopefully suffice. The New York/Boston based artist Heide Hatry has produced a series of flowers over the past five years that push right at the question of still life painting. More precisely, Ms. Hatry has produced a series of assemblage constructions that build new flowers from the material of animals.3 These objects are then photographed through all the constraints of traditional flower photography. The photographs are beautiful, as flower photography does its best to present the objects that we culturally hold as the beauty of nature in its full bloom—fragile offerings for loved ones. But, these are not plants. They are dead life. They are photos of chunks of animal flesh, the offal, which is not commonly consumed as food. In the most provocative formulation, a flower is the sexual organ of a plant, while Hatry’s “flowers” are composed from the sexual organs of animals. It is here that a level of repulsion enters into the aesthetic response. I would add that it is also here that aesthetics becomes politics. The viewer has to choose a side. There is no middle ground. One may waffle, waver, and doubt, but eventually you are either going to reject the beauty of what is presented, or you are going to shift your ideas of what you accept as beautiful. This is not an easy or a frivolous decision. An immense amount of what you accept as aesthetically available, as what you will accept as real, is on the line. Choose wisely.

Heide Hatry, Aures Cervorum Linguae Gallinarum Antenna Barbi, 2012
Heide Hatry, Conchae Ciliae Cervorum Oesophagus Cervi, 2012

My design practice, Young & Ayata, recently began an investigation into the aesthetics of realism, with a specific interest in the still life. Though not as politically charged as Ms. Hatry’s incredible creations, we are purposefully challenging the aesthetics of realism for architectural representation. In the three images presented here, we have jacked into 17th century Dutch still life paintings, a new object of our creation. The new objects are digital models, articulated and rendered to fit into the environments of the 350-year-old paintings. But, they do not hide, or if they hide, they do so in plain sight. At a pragmatic level, this is an exercise in realistic rendering and photo-composite image manipulation. But, it also exposes the artificiality of image making. A still life is in all ways an artificial montage of disparate and discrete objects. Each one introduced sequentially and then challenged to fit into the naturalism of the painting. We have just extended the time frame to 2014. Our new objects enter into the paintings in an attempt to fit compositionally, texturally, and materially. But, their success is not measured on the specifics of each new object; instead, it is evaluated on how they estrange the context that surrounds them. At its best, it makes the viewer look at every other thing in the painting in a new way. The world surrounding the new object becomes strange, not just the object itself.

Young Ayata, Breakfast with a Crab and a Fizz Object after Willem Claesz Heda, 1648-2014
Young Ayata, Still Life with Herring and Hot Stone Object after Pieter Claesz, 1636-2014

Speaking of the objects themselves, they are developed with no relation to the still life context they will eventually inhabit. They are autonomous investigations into figuration and ornament. The figures are symmetrical about two axis through the introduction of a cusp that disappears into the surface of the object. This cusp occurs at different elevations in relation to the two axes of symmetry encouraging a continual imaginary revolution of the object as the figural profile continuously varies. The ornamental articulation is from a drawing that again has no procedural relation with the figural object. These drawings are mapped as texture and color onto the objects, sometimes the symmetry of the drawing matches the cusp of the object, sometimes it completely passes over and ignores the geometry of the object. This alignment/misalignment produces a tension between the object and its articulation. Sometimes it seems integrally ornamental. Sometimes it seems excessively decorative. These objects are then fabricated as three-dimensional prints and manipulated through surface treatments to shift texture and color. The hope is that the material alluded to by the objects as real things in the world is not the material that they are actually fabricated from. This lie regarding the true materiality actually allows the objects to become more real. They cannot be easily categorized into the abstractions of a single material and this instability increases attention to their qualities. This elongation of attention is an aesthetic effect that calls assumptions regarding the real into doubt; a qualitative tension that is a prime attribute of the aesthetics of realism.

Inserting renderings of these objects into 17th century Dutch still life paintings is our weird version of being contextual. Contexualism is perhaps that greatest lie that architects tell themselves regarding the construction of the city. The idea that we can intervene in a manner that continues the traditions and attitudes of architectures that have come before. This is a trap. The fact that cities have aesthetic identities that form the backdrop of reality is both true and problematic. If a new architecture enters into these conditions in an effort to continue a contextual tradition, it is lying, or pretending to be that which it is not. The counter approach, though more critically aware, is equally fraught with problems. This is the idea that every new piece of architecture is responsive only to its time, its style, its zeitgeist, and from the position of this honesty will produce the continual cultural life of the city. But, the technological objects that construct urbanity are in all ways a still life, a dead life. What prolongs the life of a city is its ability to take its normal, its familiar, and make it new or unfamiliar. If architectural interventions into the urban fabric stand a chance, it is not through the mimicry of what has come before, nor is it through dropping a completely foreign or novel object into the mix. When architecture reinvigorates the city it is through interventions that in themselves claims no radical novelty. They play their genre, fit their profile, and yet destabilize all that already exists. They are isolated objects or scenes, totally considered in their specificity, yet unstable in the manner in which they relate to the objects of the city. It is in this mode that realism as an aesthetic estranges reality, making and remaking the world anew.

This reminds me of the difference that Raymond Chandler claimed for his “hard boiled” version of the crime mystery genre. To paraphrase Chandler, the typical murder mystery is driven by the narrative plot. The scenes all fall in line to progress the narrative from crime to resolution. Opposed to this is his hard boiled mystery, which is instead scene driven. Each scene is complete in its particular resolution of a real condition, the manner in which they connect is secondary, haphazard, and even sometimes arbitrary. The overall narrative plot is not the primary goal of Chandler’s novels, the episodic scene and the strange combinations and tensions of these scenes are where the story gains its interest and aesthetic provocation.4 This scene driven fragment is similar to the still life painting and our own interventions into them. One can try to apply an overarching narrative to the work, but it will tell you only about your ability to read relations between objects and then project a coherent meaning of your own creation. Still life paintings on their own terms withdraw from a single narrative, and instead promote the problems of how objects relate to each other in the aesthetics of realism.

Young Ayata, Still Life with Herring and Hot Stone Object after Pieter Claesz, 1636-2014
Young Ayata, Sinew Object, 2014
Young Ayata, Geological Object, 2014
Young Ayata, Hot Stone Object, 2014
Young Ayata, Fuzz Object, 2014

  1. S. Alpers, The Art of Describing (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1983). 

  2. N. Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). 

  3. H. Hatry, Not A Rose (Milan, Italy: Charta, 2012). 

  4. "The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one, which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing." from Raymond Chandler, Trouble is my Business (1950). 

Michael Young is an architect and educator practicing in New York City where he is a founding partner of the architectural design studio Young & Ayata. He is an Assistant Professor at the Cooper Union. Michael has taught design studios and seminars at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Syracuse, Pratt, and Innsbruck University. In addition to practice and teaching, Michael is invested in writing and research in relation to the confluence of geometry, representation, and aesthetics. His work has been exhibited recently in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Barcelona, Princeton, and Lexington.