Look, not everyone thinks paintings of bowls of fruit and vases of flowers are boring. Some people don’t need half a dead shark to get their art kicks, and I’m one of them. The tradition of still life (or the more morbid nature morte, French for dead nature) goes back centuries and is filled with fascinating, personal, powerful works of art. But this show about how contemporary artists are dragging still life into the modern era doesn’t do the genre any favours.
The book that accompanies it is great – lovingly researched, genuinely interesting and full of insight. But the exhibition itself is proof that an interesting idea can be totally undermined by poor hanging and a lack of quality works.
The first problem: the show starts by juxtaposing examples of classic Dutch flower paintings with contemporary ones. You’ve got to be so careful when you’re showing old and new art together. Too far one way, the old art looks stuffy and boring, too far the other, the new art looks… crap. This does both. There’s some nice art here by Henri Fantin-Latour, Victoria Reynolds, Rigoberto A. Gonzalez, Michael Craig-Martin and a few others, but it's all just too lacking in context to shine.
The second problem: it’s a mess. There’s too much stuff here, hung too close together and the central bit of the gallery has this big white wall built into it that just makes the whole thing feel like an exhibition in a village hall.
The third problem: the curators have taken the concept of still life and stretched its definition so far that, essentially, anything can be a still life. Sculptures of books, images of doors, whatever you want. Basically, if it’s art, it can be a still life apparently. Kind of demeans the whole thing.
They clearly had issues putting it together, and must have struggled to borrow the really good works that appear in the book. Trying to do a survey of how contemporary artists approach the still life without any really standout works is always going to fail.