When one thinks of still life, one automatically thinks of painting. Even within this genre, photography struggles to break away from the shackles of being labeled painting’s poor cousin. But challenging this notion today, are a generation of contemporary photographers from the Netherlands — the land that gave us, Vermeer and Van Gogh, perhaps the most landmark still life artists of all time. Still/Life, presented by Amsterdam-based photo initiative Foam, in collaboration with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS) and the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, will showcase works by 16 of these cutting-edge photo artists. First exhibited at Foam’s own gallery in 2011 as its 10th anniversary show, the exhibition, curated by Foam’s artistic director Marcel Feil has earlier travelled to Chongqing, China and opens this Friday in Mumbai.
With a focus on promoting young talent, Foam’s curators keep a close tab on work by budding as well as established names in the field. For Still/Life , research included studio visits and conversations with several artists long associated with the space. “The theme still life, remains as relevant as ever in today’s climate. For a wide group of contemporary (autonomous) photographers, still life continues to inspire, although the concept has been modernized and updated”, explains Feil. Intrinsic to Dutch art history are the two major themes of Dutch light and still life. While Foam’s opening show in 2001 explored the former, this show — its first ever in Mumbai, delves into the latter.
Quirky yet complex
Most of the photographers on the list come with a background of advertising work, where the marriage of art and commerce gives birth to imagery that is clean and yet complex. These are also features that sit well with the minimalistic, functional and often quirky Dutch aesthetic. Photographer couple Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes, whose list of clients include fashion companies like Valentino and Lanvin amongst others, use boundless imagination turning piles of chairs, plain white shirts, shoes, bags and whatnot into landscapes — both moving and still, of shapes, colour and design. What thrills us about advertising imagery is the endless possibilities that a single object opens up.
An apple, for example, stops being just an apple, becoming instead a symbol for hunger, sin, good health, or whichever other layers of context the makers throw onto it. Equally important elements are colour and texture and what they evoke when merged as one.
Still lifes by the Dutch masters in the 16th and 17th centuries were usually intricate paintings of flower arrangements or works based on the vanitas theme that plays on the idea of memento mori by using objects like clocks, skulls, candles amongst others to signify death, mortality, rebirth or human flaws like greed, corruption or vanity. Rich colours and details were typical to the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque styles. Contemporary work turns this around as well, where the ornate and the dramatic is replaced by the quiet and the understated. Examples of this would be artist Elspeth Diederix who shoots flowers and plants underwater, creating a dreamy world of muted tones or the stark potato portraits by photographers Anuschka Blommers and Neils Schumm. The potato study also being a comment on what the vegetable means to Netherlands, as one of the biggest exporters and producers of potatoes in the world today.
Techie at work
The one similarity in both still life art and photography though, remains the studio-based nature of it, with the often tedious precision of pre-production that goes into making the work. In a behind-the-scenes or self-reflective approach, a few artists in the show actually include equipment and material like lights, holders and strings used to set up the shot. By doing this they’re removing at least one layer of separation between the real and the illusion. It’s also a way of hinting at the enormous importance of post-production editing that goes into creating the perfect image. Artists like Anne De Vries, Qiu Yang and Jaap Schereen take the use of digital technology to whole new levels. While De Vries’ work revolves around the limitations of physical realms that one can surmount in virtual worlds, Yang uses scientific photography to comprehend the mechanical stress levels in Chinese produced plastic, making abstract images that looks like rivers of colours melding into one another. Schereen breaks down composition of digital colours, where the same flower arrangement is shot individually in cyan, magenta, yellow and black and then in red, blue and green.
The works are not only evocative of important art movements of the past like pop art for one, they also allude to the work of other noted photographers. Paul Kooiker’s images that use the human body as a form to be moulded, as product/ machine, with its highly sexual undertones is reminiscent of German-Australian fashion photographer Helmut Newton’s work or even Man Ray’s. Reversing this and giving it a hint of mischief is photographer Krista Van Der Niet, whose uncanny, provocative use of organic and inorganic material is personified in an almost Martin Parr-esque way.
Still/Life will be ongoing from November 30 to Febriary 10, 2019 at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS.