by Michael Petry. Thames and Hudson, November 2013. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9780500239063 (cl.), $60.00.

Reviewed March 2014
Mo Dawley, Art and Drama Librarian, Carnegie Mellon University, md2z@andrew.cmu.edu

A hologram on the front cover of this hefty volume, animating a seventeenth-century floral still-life continually being exploded and revived, serves as a metaphor for the thesis of the book which demonstrates the inevitable transformation of the Western still-life tradition in the work of twenty-first century international artists. Subsequently within, Mr. Petry, artist and director of the MOCA London, provides a brief overview of the history of still-life, and through chapters dedicated to flora, food, house and home, fauna and death, analyzes a “mortal edge” within the contemporary genre.

Contemporary nature morte is portrayed via historic, traditional, and new technologies with praxis expanding to include sculpture, installation, projection, video and performance, and well understood symbolism in earlier still-life traditions is abandoned or subverted to make way for layered meanings that may require explanation, deeper reflection or which to a large extent elude any coherent interpretation.

Painting and references to the painting tradition are represented to a fair degree, but with a twist. For example, a portrait (more like an apparition) of a cat staring vacantly into space is impasto on paper as much as it is a representation of an animal and is humorously(?) titled “Velazquez”; or, in a glorious chromogenic print of an arrangement of flowers and fruit (echoing affluence through masterful Dutch still-life technique) one gradually becomes aware that the blooms are beginning to wither, the fruit is going off, and in the periphery are an extended bared human leg, a moldering cigarette, a curiously headlined tabloid, and a venetian blind cast askew.

Works in three-dimensions also compel unrest: an animatronic sparrow endlessly perishes on a window sill harking the decline of the species; a mountain precariously composed of ceramic dishes broken during manufacture is likely a commentary on human devastation or consumerism or both or more; an artist’s self-portrait is produced from his own frozen blood; a phallic stainless steel mushroom cloud leaves more to imagine than world annihilation.

With close to 200 artists represented and the majority of space given to rich reproductions, commentary on each of the works is kept short but normally reveals enough to peak interest and encourage further thought or research. Brevity does at times frustrate comprehension with the lack of footnotes (the bibliography by itself is not particularly elucidating), and some important points made which implicate contemporary art practice are glossed over, for example, the idea of sensationalizing death at the expense of alienating life. Otherwise a journey through this compendium is worthwhile as an introduction to seeing the still-life with new eyes.

© 2014 ARLIS/NA