Still Life with Dead Animal

On a recent trip to NYC I went to the Met to see the show of Dutch paintings from “The Age of Rembrandt”. First of all, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Met and I’d forgotten how huge the place is. It also now includes a new gallery for modern (since 1960) photography, but I was really there to see the paintings.

Jan Weenix: Falconer's Bag
Falconer’s Bag, 1695, Jan Weenix from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last spring I saw Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and it knocked me out. I know, I know, Vermeer is one of those artists whose work is so well known that it’s easy to feel blasé about the whole thing, but seeing that particular painting in person (even more so than the Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague) was a memorable experience. So I was looking forward to seeing the five Vermeers that the Met has as well as any still life that might be there. On the whole the show was quite good, though I was disappointed that there were only a limited number of still lifes among the many portraits and landscapes and the Vermeers weren’t quite up to the Kitchen Maid. Maybe my expectations were too high. Anyway, that sets the context for the work of another artist I saw later that day.

While thumbing through a copy of Photograph at a gallery in Chelsea I came across a photograph that reminded me of the Dutch still lifes, but instead of the usual rabbit or game bird this image contained a wallaby. Needless to say I was intrigued, so I made a point of seeing the images in person.

Drew: Wallaby with Tarpaulin
Wallaby with Tarpaulin, 2006, Marian Drew

The artist’s name is Marian Drew and she finds these subjects by the side of the road in her native Australia. The gallery notes say that, opposed to the bounty portrayed in traditional still lifes, her images are a commentary on human wastefulness and disregard for wild animals. I don’t know that I get the wasteful aspect of it because the images themselves are generally quite minimal, seldom is the table overflowing. I do however see roadkill a comment on the intersection of the wild and the developed, the often disastrous consequences of that intersection, habitat loss, etc. Despite the somewhat gruesome subject matter there are some wonderful images.

Drew: Wombat with Watermelon
Wombat with Watermelon, 2005, Marian Drew

That said, seeing the images in person there was something I hadn’t noticed in the smaller image in the gallery guide. In many of the images there was a halo around the objects on the table. A kind of spotlight effect that I found distracting. I feel her best images are the ones where this effect isn’t as strongly evident. Later I learned from the gallerist that the effect was due to the fact that Drew photographs these images in complete darkness and illuminates the objects with a “torch”. She doesn’t know herself exactly how the lighting is going to turn out until she sees the image. Personally, I would rather have the images lit with a more natural light. I don’t know that her method adds anything to her intended meaning. It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind shooting the images in this way.

The intersection of man and animal (and being in NYC) got me thinking about Alessandra Sanguinetti’s from On the Sixth Day. I saw some of those images at the ICP show Ecotopia last year and finally got around to buying her book at Dashwood Books (an excellent shop with a very strong section of Japanese photography) the same day I went to see the Drew show. One of the images from the series is also a still life, though much more naturalistic than either Drew’s work or the Dutch paintings.

Alessandra Sanguinetti: Still Life
Still Life from On the Sixth Day, Alessandra Sanguinetti

Beyond the visual difference there is also a considerable difference in the image’s meaning. Rather than the wastefulness and disregard for the natural world portrayed in Drew’s images Sanguinetti was photographing subsistence farmers in Argentina who are intimately linked with their surroundings.

For anyone who hasn’t seen On the Sixth Day, I highly recommend it. It is a visual tour de force and will definitely make you think about the origin of the piece of meat on your plate.

One thought on “Still Life with Dead Animal

  1. Hi !!! ^_^
    My name is Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that your posts are really interesting
    And want to ask you: will you continue to post in this blog in future?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Tnx!
    Your Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

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