Ever since viewing what turned out to be the final solo show of Bruce Kurland (1938-2013), at the Victoria Munroe Gallery in New York City in 1990, I have been haunted by his intimate oil paintings. And we’re talking still lifes here, perhaps not the most common trigger to memories of art encounters (with major exceptions, of course, from the likes of Chardin, Morandi, Thiebaud and other masters of engagement with the inanimate).
What struck me then, and what is now reconfirmed by the 80 or so stunning color plates in Bruce Kurland: Illusion and the Little World, an exceptional survey of the artist’s work, is the disturbing quality of many of the arrangements—unsettling in the chosen objects, the way they are set up, their out-of-the-ordinary juxtapositions, the often eerie settings/backdrops. Yes, you’ll find some of the traditional still-life elements—fruit, flowers, various humble vessels, dead game—in these works, which date from the late 1960s to 2012, but they are never your “normal” nature morte. The apples may be rotten, the daisies wilted, the bowl stuffed with a turkey carcass, and the hanging snipe transformed into a tachiste fantasy.
A few favorite examples: two spears of asparagus balancing on the top of a can of Budweiser, with a couple of mussel shells sharing the shelf (“Beer Can, Asparagus, and Mussel Shells, 1973); a suspended sow’s head wearing a half smile (“Sow’s Head,” 1974); “Arrangement with Duck’s Skull, Romaine Lettuce, and Migratory Bird Stamp”(1978); a couple of collapsing cupcakes with stenciled angels presiding (“Cakes and Angels #2,” 1998); a squid and flower combo against a red wall (“Still Life with Squid,” 1992); and a crab doing a headstand on a jar of mustard (“Mustard Jar Crab,” 2002).
Rarely do these still lifes stay still. In the remarkable “Crab Personnage,” 1985, Kurland has added motion lines that make the shellfish appear to be dancing a kind of jig. Various insects are deployed to lend movement to the canvas. In “Three Hanging Fish,” 1986, the catch, hung from a stick, seems to be decomposing before our eyes—dripping away (Kurland was known to keep study subjects in his studio till they took on a noticeable odor).
Kurland was a fisherman and a number of his still lifes offer the ones that didn’t get away, mainly trout. Some of these studies are macabre: “Trout and Fly,” 1985, depicts the fish impaled on a stick, its open mouth aimed at a bug it will never consume. By contrast, a rare watercolor, from 1981, of two trout caught in the Wiscoy Creek in western New York could pass for a John Singer Sargent.
Which underscores an important point: however disconcerting their subject matter, these works are inherently beautiful. Whether a study of magnolias in a bottle, a couple of oysters on the half shell, or the remarkable “Still Life with Cauliflower (“The Bomb”),” 2010, which transforms the “blooming” vegetable into a mushroom cloud (with plastic toy jet flying overhead), Kurland’s still lifes gratify the eye.
The book features three short texts that help illuminate Kurland’s work. In an opening appreciation, Elizabeth Rathbone, chief curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., connects the artist’s work to such old master Dutch painters as Carel Fabritius, Jan Baptist Weenix and Adriaen Coorte. She also highlights his kinship with John Frederick Peto, that master of trompe-l’oeil. The “warm” light in Peto’s paintings, she states, “has only returned in contemporary art in the work of Bruce Kurland.”
Rathbone devotes a part of her text to Kurland’s special affinity with the avian. She cites the artist recalling how his childhood world was gray until, at around age six, “he saw a yellow warbler in a thicket.” She notes how he knew a great deal about birds and how he took some of his cues for rendering them from John James Audubon. “The necessity of taking the life of a bird in order to possess it,” she observes, “is the paradox inherent in Kurland’s paintings.”
Lisa Jarnot, an independent scholar and poet, builds a portrait through personal recollections of meeting the painter in San Francisco in 1989. She, too, mentions Kurland’s special affinity for birds. During an outing at Point Reyes National Seashore, the artist complained about the “avian voyeurism” of a group of birdwatchers. “They don’t understand birds,” Jarnot quotes Kurland as saying; “There’s a difference between looking at a bird and holding it in your hands.” And, he might have added, painting it.
The final text, by gallery owner Victoria Munroe, completes the appreciation of the painter through memories of her interactions and conversations with Kurland in the mid-1980s in Manhattan. Visiting him for the first time (his painting space on 37th Street and 9th Avenue reminded her of “Cézanne’s studio in Aix and Morandi’s humble room in Bologna”), she was told that he had sold every painting he had ever made and “had finished every painting he had ever started.”
Kurland is one of those off-the-grid artists who take on a kind of cult status over time. One thinks of Walter Murch or Robert Hamilton or Albert York—or even the better-known Joseph Cornell—who all worked outside the art world. This monograph serves as a fitting monument to a true independent who stood tradition—and a bird or two—on its head.
Bruce Kurland: Illusion and the Little World (2014) is published by Avocet Editions.