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Press Release



With Catherine Whitney, Gallery Director, Gerald Peters Gallery
Saturday, April 17, 2004 at 11:00 AM

With Hank Pitcher, Artist and Educator, College of Creative Studies, UCSB
Saturday, May 8, 2004 at 11:00 AM
Seating limited, to reserve a seat, call (805) 730-1460


Americans. We don’t like boundaries. We eschew tradition. We don’t think outside the box. We are outside the box.

For Americans the conventions of still life painting are not the boundaries of a limitation, but the format for invention. Not just another pretty vase. Not just a bowl of fruit. American artists have taken the still life concept and expanded it, reduced it, abstracted it and held it up as an inquisitive mirror of the American experience.

Still life painting, as it is known today, was born early in the seventeenth century to a Dutch painter who sought to create a tableau of objects exploring human foibles called vanitas. These paintings featured items like coins, flowers and often a skull and were intended as a meditation on the absurdity of mortal ambitions in the face of certain death. Later French painters, in order to demonstrate the wealth of their patrons, piled tables high with earthly bounty, game and ornament. The work of Jean-Baptiste Chardin and his contemporaries featured images of dead game and other items from the common kitchen and revitalized interest in a flagging genre. Americans refused to paint inside this regime.

At the time the American National Academy was founded in 1825, one critic wrote that still life in America ranked just above sketching and copying and just below the paintings of “animals and cattle pieces ” as a subject. Serious American artists were admonished to take up more serious pursuits. Nonetheless, the American painter was unperturbed.

As public appreciation of the genre expanded, critics begrudgingly admitted that a certain charm was to be found in “the exactness of imitation” seen in the best examples of American still life painters. However, they continued to deride the paintings as being objects for mere “decoration.” In the later nineteenth century, William Harnett almost single-handedly energized the genre by creating trompe l’oeil paintings like “Pipe, Newspaper, and Tobacco.” The illusion created by painting objects with perfect perspective and realistic colors delighted patrons everywhere. These trompe l’oeil paintings touched on the early themes of the Dutch vanitas paintings with burnt matches and daily newspapers, but treated the idea of mortality whimsically. Still life needed no longer concern itself with death.

In the twentieth century, American artists pursued innovation and new approaches to their craft and found a great ally in the humble still life. A generation of painters like Max Weber and Alfred Maurer adopted still life for the radical purpose of exploring form for form’s sake and color for color’s sake. At times, objects were transformed as metaphors for ideas or emotions as in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. As the twenty-first century arrives, the lowly object, its context redefined and its conventions discarded, has became a metaphor for the American character. - Frank Goss

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