. . . the fact is that some people associate change with living, others . . . with dying. —Hugo Williams
The meticulous arrangement and stylish rendering of mundane objects is one of the first recognizable genres of painting. We gaze with incomprehension on the images of Stone Age cavemen and Egyptians, but what little survives from the first work by people like us—no Classical Greek paintings survive, but from Rome we have the murals of Pompeii—confirms the primacy and durability of still life. Romans liked to see themselves on their walls, alongsidetrompe l’oeil depictions of what they owned. Two millennia later we almost never paint Renaissance pageants or Baroque history, but arrangements of flowers, things to eat, and portable furnishings are very much still with us. One place to see remarkable still lifes until March 19th is at the St. George Art Museum, which is showing a large assortment of Charles Becker’s paintings. Becker is a popular artist whose works sell quickly, so only the generosity of the owners permits assembling such a satisfying occasional overview of his work.
Viewers used to thinking that still life is a miniature genre will be surprised to enter the gallery and encounter “Please Step In,” which is six feet tall and five wide. Anyone who has been frustrated by the near-invisibility of Van Eyck’s tiny self-portrait, easily overlooked in the distorting mirror on the back wall of “The Wedding of Arnolfini,” will appreciate the compound reflections of the artist’s studio in the silver pitcher that is the principal subject of “Please Step In.” They include two contrasting images of the artist that are at least 8” tall. In “On the Mark” the same pitcher appears tiny compared to the looming china platter with a bulls-eye pattern that frames it and gives the painting its name. There are no accidents in still life, and the way subjects are used or composed makes a point, whether it’s immediately apparent or not.
Becker’s genre—“Super Real”—is distinct from Surreal, or “beyond real.” Salvador Dalí, perhaps the best-known Surrealist, claimed also to have invented the kind of hallucinatory realism that Becker displays, and from time to time Becker appears to acknowledge the connection. For instance, in another large panel a mysteriously tiny woman holding a basin pours a stream of water that turns into a ribbon that leads to a table full of classic still life elements. Only the title, “Enchanted Waterhouse,” reveals that the source is not Dali, but John William Waterhouse, a late Pre-Raphaelite whose women are among that movement’s most popular representations today. A similarly surreal-seeming passage occurs in “A Beautiful Mind” (from the “Scissors Series”), where a brush is suspended midway through painting a cherry, half the paint perfectly embodying the fruit while the other half drips across an otherwise invisible surface on which otherwise empty space is already signified. But where Dalí is said to concern auto-erotic dreams, Becker only reminds us that an artist has magic up his sleeve. Similarly “Pulp, Drip, Squeeze,” wherein a gilt silver chalice becomes a ribbon that spirals freely, pours itself into the form of a strawberry, and finally melts. The topic here isn’t reality, but the power of paint and our minds to transcend reality.
That wasn’t always the point, as I was reminded before we headed over to the St. George Art Museum. By coincidence, our condo was decorated with reproductions of Paul Cézanne’s landscapes, and we know Cézanne wanted these familiar profiles of Mt. St-Victoire and the aqueduct to do the same thing he made still life do: a purpose very different from Charles Becker’s. Cézanne, along with Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat, attempted a course-correction on the brief trajectory of the Impressionists that we know as Post-Impressionism. Their goal, seen to advantage in the fruit Cézanne rendered like a string of letter c’s—was to rediscover the structure of the physical world that had all but dissolved in the swirling optical phenomenology of Monet.
A good way to see the difference would be to stand before one of Becker’s canvases, with it’s infinitesimal lace, chipped crockery, and translucent grapes, each containing a vivid lesson about surface appearances, while holding a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Still Life With Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing Wax” of 1889. The Dutchman’s surfaces are just as painstakingly rendered, but the intention could hardly be more different. The same parallel lines that limn his onions’ green shoots also mark their skins. Every object acknowledges the yellow table that supports it. Paradoxically, in spite of the greater visual impact of Becker’s objects, it is Van Gogh’s that feel present. Becker’s technique is like Calculus, reducing the distance between the original and the copy to zero. In the process, visual information prevails. Van Gogh’s objects confess their oily substance, but even as we see they are painted, we perceive their underlying reality. Becker’s glass of wine looks good enough to drink, but you cannot and never could. It’s not in this world. There can be no doubt that Van Gogh ate his onions, after palming their skins, inhaling their perfume, and slicing into their pungent interiors.
A third approach to still life comes from Salt Lake artist Brad Overton. His most recent show at the Phillips Gallery closed in February, but the gallery still has some of the paintings, as well as photos archived at their website. His works initially appear closer to Post-Impressionism than to Becker’s extreme realism, but his goal lies somewhere between the two. If Becker’s brush could be said to disappear into the surfaces he renders, and Van Gogh’s surfaces to dematerialize under the onslaught of his brush, Overton may be said to capture the precise moment when a confectionary slurry of paint gels into a recognizable image. In “Santa Fe Breakfast” a teacup oscillates nervously between its prescription as an architectonic cylinder and the flat-looking smears of blue and white that decorate it. No matter how close a viewer comes to a Becker, its illusions hang together. But what Overton makes look solid across the room becomes an almost sculptural pattern of brushstrokes at normal viewing range.
The presence of such different approaches to painting similar subjects gives us a chance not only to compare techniques, but to ask how the purpose of still life has evolved. It’s a paradox that where artists used these intimate scenes for centuries to reflect on the impermanence of material things, thereby incorporating a pedagogical moral message, the genre calls attention to the maker’s skill in a way that encourages pride. At times it was common to openly challenge audiences to distinguish painting from original. By the 19th century still life was an affordable decoration, an altar-like personal space for the owner’s self indulgence no longer in the forefront of artistic growth. But for Cézanne, table top topography offered a laboratory for demonstrating his basic visual structures: sphere, cone, cylinder, cube. Van Gogh added a repertoire of marks that can build those forms: dots, dashes, lines. If Cézanne’s theory parallels the then-recent discovery that atoms are made of protons and electrons, then Van Gogh played the role of later scientists who showed that these can be broken down further, into quarks.
In the last century still life has become something like an artist’s diary. Close observation shows just how precise the connection has become. Cézanne submerged his visual alphabet into his landscapes, but left it visible in his still life. Van Gogh’s personal property, his pipe and letter, flank a book by Raspail, the controversial French scientist who founded cell theory in biology. Making this book the visual climax of his painting is the artist’s way of justifying the cell-like marks, the dots and dashes that came to increasingly comprise his late style. Charles Becker’s seeming aberrations—the moments where he goes beyond using his skill to convincingly portray what is and slips in something just as real-looking that is not—are the places where he breaks character long enough to wink at us. He sometimes uses punning titles for this purpose: “Plum Line,” “Pair Brandy,” “Orange Appeal.” Brad Overton takes this approach further, tagging snapshots from his collection of eclectic objects, each patinated with deliberate, mindful use, with irrepressible puns. Three persimmons stacked in a pyramid are “Cheerleaders with Reflection,” while garlic, lemon, and pepper comprise “A Simple Recipe.” So with “Work Horse” and “Ring Master.”
If the extinguished match Van Gogh perched carefully to cool safely tells us he smoked his pipe just before painting it, so the toy truck and star map of “Driving All Night” speak eloquently of Overton’s previous experience.|7| Objects like these aren’t more real than the experiences they materialize, but they are more durable, and their painted images bring back moments in their maker’s lives that are sometimes about being an artist, sometimes about other times, but always about being alive.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.