Galleries

Rehabilitating the Untrendy Tradition of Still Life Painting

In their two-artist show at Mrs. Gallery, Sarah Bedford and Tracy Miller offer complementary approaches to bringing the historically devalued genre of still life painting into the 21st century.

Installation view of <em>More</em> at Mrs. Gallery (photo courtesy Mrs. Gallery)
Installation view of More at Mrs. Gallery (photo courtesy Mrs. Gallery)

There is perhaps no genre in painting today more unassuming than the floral still life. Even at the height of Western genre painting, which reached its apogee in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the still life was considered to be the lowest within the hierarchy of painting, far behind history painting, landscape, and portraiture. Though the modernists played with vases and flowers, distorting them into Cubist near-abstractions, or incorporating collage in ways that were revolutionary at the time, still life innovation may have peaked in that era. But perhaps, in the current arena of painting, the very act of still life painting can be transgressive, a flagrant rejection of other popular tropes. As such, the gusto of More at Mrs. Gallery in Maspeth, Queens — a two-person show featuring paintings by Sarah Bedford and Tracy Miller — is at once daring and sweet, both a refreshing revitalization of the still life as subject matter, and a cheery antidote to the doldrums of so many other painting trends.

Works by Sarah Bedford at Mrs. Gallery
Works by Sarah Bedford at Mrs. Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

The artists’ riotous canvases pull from the contemporary in various ways. Bedford’s paintings portray plants in pots or vases, often grounded on a table or something approaching real space. The objects within are fragmented, prismatic — more like cut crystal than Cubism. This impression is reinforced by her use of metallic and shiny accents. She applies sand, mica shards, tinsel, and glitter, among other materials, to her canvases; the use of these materials, rather than being overly referential to modernist moves, grounds the works in the present and accentuates their dynamism. Her pastels on black paper are especially charming. They are the most overtly floral works in More, yet spray paint lines add shocks of effervescence, giving the compositions unnatural and appealing glows.

Tracy Miller, "Crushed Rose" (2011), oil on canvas, 54 x 48 in
Tracy Miller, “Crushed Rose” (2011), oil on canvas, 54 x 48 in

If Bedford’s paintings appear to have a ground, Miller’s still lifes float in a dreamscape. These paintings are cheerful bacchanals of riotous color and pattern, interspersed with wry illustrations of Budweiser cans, lobster, and other comestibles ranging from fruit to candy — spanning natural flavors and those chemically produced, the wholesome and the tawdry. These ebullient works are devoid of memento mori and other characteristic acknowledgements of death and degradation. Bedford’s depictions of contemporary decadence aren’t moralizing; if anything, they are merely sampling. Drugstore candy, cans of US beer, ripe fruits, and large crustaceans — this cornucopia is as accessible as it’s ever been and, as far as spreads go, relatively harmless. No hard liquor or drugs is present (absinthe, once a popular still life motif, served as a coded allusion to decadence). Instead, we are presented with an easily accessible cocktail of foodstuffs. Perhaps the ease of access is the point; exotic fruits and bottom feeders of the sea are available year-round in our encyclopedic and homogenous grocery stores. As such, these cornucopia paintings play with contrasts of form and content, potentially alluding to balance — or a lighthearted lack thereof — while spinning sweetly toward delicious ecstasy.

Installation view of More at Mrs. Gallery
Installation view of More at Mrs. Gallery

Bedford’s and Miller’s additions to the still life lexicon range from contemporary mark-making to contemporary subject matter, injecting freshness into a storied tradition. If such themes aim more to appeal than to challenge, it’s not necessarily a flaw of the work. The artists’ choice to evince portraiture, landscape, and other accepted imagery conveys a devotion to the subject matter, and a concerted effort to bring the floral still life into the 21st century. In many ways, their works approach the basic form of still life painting, with spreads of florals and foodstuffs; yet they also enliven the genre. In More, these artists deliver a look at tradition, exhumed, transformed, and updated for today’s painting environment.

Works by Tracy Miller at Mrs. Gallery
Works by Tracy Miller at Mrs. Gallery

More with works by Sarah Bedford and Tracy Miller continues at Mrs. Gallery (60–40 56th Drive, Maspeth, Queens) through January 28.

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