The Common Object
An exhibition celebrates the possibilities inherent in a dish towel
Published: December 21, 2011
The premise of The Common Object, a traveling exhibition now visiting Maryland Institute College of Art’s Meyerhoff Gallery, may seem a tad gimmicky. For the show, Zeuxis, an association of still-life painters founded in New York, asked 37 artists to incorporate a dish towel into a still life. (One of those towels, a blue-and-white-checked version, lies crumpled in a glass case in the gallery.) An introduction in the exhibition catalogue by Imogen Sara Smith describes its function thus: “Wet or dry, smooth or wrinkled, clean or stained, it symbolizes the blank canvas, the eternal challenge to make something out of nothing.”
The towel concept turns out to be fodder for a surprisingly interesting and diverse exhibition. Some artists chose to forefront the towel, while it is only incidental—or so abstract as to be unrecognizable—in others. The show consequently has a Where’s Waldo? aspect, but with the profusion of styles and approaches, one tends to forget to look for the object in question.
A number of the paintings have a wry, self-referential tone. Lucy Barber’s “Still Life With Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” for instance, is a beautifully rendered painting of glass bottles sitting on a shelf in front of a towel, which is pinned to a yellow wall and gracefully drapes. But in a sly wink at the form, a pink DVD case, adorned with the blurry figure of a woman, presumably Audrey Hepburn, also inhabits the shelf. Though the still life tends to celebrate the mundane, the form often elevates certain mundane objects—the timeless, iconic ones, like vases of flowers and bowls of fruit—over others, like artifacts of popular culture (though, it must be said, Barber chose a classic film).
MICA professor Mark Karnes’ paintings also depict contemporary objects. And if still life is the art of looking at familiar objects anew, he has fulfilled his mandate. His small, luminous oil paintings imbue familiar objects with mysterious resonance. A set of salt and pepper shakers and a CFL light bulb lying on a towel seem to glow with inner meaning, and no, the light bulb is not screwed in. (Karnes also assigned the dish-towel exercise to his students at MICA; about a dozen of their paintings hang on a wall adjoining the exhibition.)
What is perhaps most refreshing about the show is the breadth of style. Some of the still lifes take a classic approach, like that of William D. Barnes. His “Still Life With Turkish Pitcher” is a depiction of a crowded table in an artist’s studio, in soft pastel hues. A mask, a pitcher, a sculpted head, and a half-finished painting all reflect a warm rosy light coming from outside the frame, as if the sun were setting through a window. In contrast, Richard Baker’s “Wonder Towel” is, if a still life at all, one that strongly references Pop Art. His towel, the only object in the painting, remains folded and new, with the tag still attached. In fact, the tag and even the little plastic tab that attaches it to the towel are three-dimensional, daring you to touch.
Sydney Licht’s “Still Life With Coffee and Tea” also has a hyper-real quality, but the painting is colorful and cartoonish, in a style reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud. The lovely, clean lines in Bevin Engman’s “Orange, Black and Coil” reduce a rolled-up towel to a shape among other geometric shapes, while Ying Li takes a nearly sculptural approach to the assignment. Her painting, “Padma’s Beads,” is a highly abstract, messy oil with great gobs of paint drooping off the surface. Step back and the folds of the towel literally stand out from the surface of the painting.
Catherine Kehoe’s oils, meanwhile, have a clean, angular, abstract quality, as if reflected in a broken mirror, though it is clear what they depict. Her “Als Ich Kann” is a small oil of a tall pedestal of grapes next to a tiny cat figurine, with a corner of the towel visible along the top. A fallen grape glows with an inner light and draws the eye; one can almost sense how it would burst in the mouth.
And one of the more evocative paintings in the exhibition, if inexplicably so, is Anthony Martino’s “Summer Tea and Soft Soap #1.” A loose sketch of a tea kettle sits on a table—which is draped in what is apparently the towel—next to a bottle of hand soap. Because of their positioning, as well as the angle of the tea kettle handle and the soap dispenser, the objects seem oddly human. They appear to look out over an abstract green field, like an old couple contemplating a valley.
Ultimately, despite its resemblance to a classroom exercise, The Common Object does just what Zeuxis intends: It demonstrates the rich possibilities of an often underappreciated form.
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