Research: Still Life – Mat Collishaw, Emma Bennett and John Currin

Updated on 7 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

3 August 2016. Still life can be a lot of things, and I met some radically diverging approaches on the subject in this research session.

On Mat Collishaw’s (*1966, UK) (Collishaw, 2016) website I met weird and disturbing installations of a great variety of techniques and ideas. Since my tutor asked me to look at Collishaw’s photos, I was confused at what to pay attention to. I did not know whether the photos were there to show the artist’s work or whether the photos WERE the works of art. Also, in the still life context it was hard for me to see a relationship of the presented works with any but the most radical approach to the concept. Some of the few works reminding me of a still life were “Butterfly Jar” (Collishaw, n.d.(a)) and “Natura Morte” (). Both appear to be colour-composed with great care and contain subtly disturbing elements, like e.g., in the first example, a slide projector appearing to project images of butterflies into the butterfly glass, which makes the net obsolete. I might interpret this as a collision between traditional and contemporary modes of acquisition of knowledge. This reminded me strongly of my own work at my museum, where the collecting of actual specimens has practically stopped (excepting the occasional little researched groups of organisms requiring the establishing of a collection from scratch) and is replaced by imaging systems. Which allows the question of whether the photograph of a setup of projected objects is a still life or something else, removed one more layer from the real.

What a difference when looking at the work by Emma Bennett (*1974, UK). Unfortunately the images I could find (e.g. Bennett, 2017) were too small and dark to see any greater detail. Her paintings look very traditional, and also the modern alterations made, like a fire burning in the middle of a meticulously placed arrangement of fruit or the various elements of a still life hanging in mid air, on their own, follow a long tradition of interpretation. The flames will probably consume the fruit after a while, leaving nothing but a memory. The introduction of elements reminding us of the transience of everything alive belongs in the vanitas concept typical of still life arrangements. See also Bennett’s own explanation of her ideas behind the series in a press release (Charlie Smith London, 2015). Her following a traditional path of artistic development in a radically different contemporary scene does provide some an anachronistic attraction.

John Currin’s (*1962, USA) work on the other hand employs a mix of painting techniques from the old masterly to modern, reminding me in style in places of the Austrian Caricaturist Manfred Deix (1949-2016) (Karikaturmuseum Krems, 2016), or to put it with the Gagosian Gallery (2017): “Consistent throughout his oeuvre is his search for the point at which the beautiful and the grotesque are held in perfect balance.”. Despite his masterly technique his choice of subjects is not always what I would be happy to look at and it was quite difficult to find anything reminding me of a still life, but parts of “Thanksgiving” probably come close to one. The setup even included the fleeting aspect of life represented by the (horribly naked) turkey to be consumed soon – but since none of the slim ladies seem to be capable of doing so, decomposition of the turkey may be achieved in more than one way.

So, in summary, what message do I take from this excursion? There is of course no limit to the interpretation of a traditional subject. The question is: What aspects make an artist’s work noticeably contemporary? For my part I believe that it should be insufficient to just rearrange the established. The message of a work of art (in case one is intended) should be firmly nested within the agreements forming the base of a working society so that it may be interpreted correctly and thus an influence exerted on a projected development of humanity. Or such like.


Bennett, E. (2017) Something Stirs [oil on canvas] [online]. Charlie Smith, London. Available at: [Accessed 7 March 2017]

Charlie Smith London (2015) Emma Bennett: Several Small Fires [press release] [online]. Charlie Smith, London. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Collishaw, M. (2014) Natura Morte [C-type photograph] [online]. Matt Collishaw, n.k. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Collishaw, M. (2016) Works [online]. Matt Collishaw, n.k. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Collishaw, M. (n.d.) Butterfly Jar [n.k.] [online]. Matt Collishaw, n.k. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Currin, J. (2003) Thanksgiving [oil on canvas] [online]. Gagosian Gallery, New York. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Gagosian Gallery (2017) John Currin [online]. Gagosian Gallery, New York. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Karikaturmuseum Krems (2016) Manfred Deix [online]. Karikaturmuseum Krems. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]

Research: Colour – Frank Stella, Hélio Oiticica and Jessica Stockholder

Updated on 6 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

2 August 2016. Off to a marathon session on artist research. In order to broaden considerably my knowledge of contemporary artists, I was given a list of names to look at. First, on the use of colour.

American pioneer minimalist and post-painterly abstract painter and printmaker Frank Stella (*1936) reminds me somewhat of Josef Albers, whose influence is visible in several of his meticulously planned and executed geometrical forms following the “shaped canvas” concept. An example of this is e.g. “Gray Scramble” (Stella, 1968-1969). Wondering about the name of the work I noticed the transition, from edge to centre, a number of nested greys broken by what I guess might be primary blue, red and yellow in real life. Although I would expect the bright colours to stand out from the grey, this is not the case. There appears to be a smooth transition from “front” to “back” of the tunnel-like impression. This may of course be helped by the bright yellow centre, which suggests light at the far end of the tunnel. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the shaped canvas concept and hard edge painting, although I recognize the important contribution to our knowledge about colours and their relationships as well as their influence on the human mind. At the same time Stella intended to lead the viewer back to the notion that a canvas is a flat surface rather than adhering to the old idea of it being a “window onto three-dimensional space” (The Art Story, n.d.). I understand that this is a rebellious attitude questioning the traditional view, but for me, living in a freer art environment many decades later, it is difficult to understand the achievement and why it had to be fought for in the first place. In later years Stella returned to abstract expressionism, where the power and motion in a story is more important than the narrative itself (a famous quote of his being “What you see is what you see” (The Art Story, n.d.)). For example, he produced a series of paintings referring to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, as e.g. in “The Fountain” from 1992 (Stella, 1992).

A contemporary of Stella was the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), a major achievement of who was to extend the above research on the effects of colour into three-dimensional space (Gallagher, 2017). Looking at some of his installations reminds me strongly of interior design elements typically used in the 1960s and 1970s, with a short renaissance after 2000. His artistic endeavour, by leaving the canvas-bound exploration, seems to have been powerful enough to lead to the application of his findings on objects and settings of everyday use. The question that arises here, of course, is whether such installations are art or design in the first place.

Moving on to the Canadian sculptor and installation artist  Jessica Stockholder, who, born in 1959, works a generation later than the former. She is intrigued by colour and the idea that the materiality of a surface bears the capability to hold and transport fiction (Stockholder, 2011). So she started experimenting with the reactions of colour on a variety of surfaces and quickly became aware of the fact that she was dealing with physical and mental boundaries. The latter resonates strongly with me as a a biologist. Boundaries are some of the most profound prerequisites necessary to form life at all and then to keep it alive. We as living organisms are constantly struggling at our boundaries to adapt the inside to the outside and only when we die our boundaries dissolve, both in sheer being but also spiritually. So I was very curious to see how Stockholder approaches the boundary. Her artworks page (Stockholder, n.d.) has an overwhelming array of paintings and installations, which share an indulgence in bright colour.

3 August 2016. They were not exactly what I expected and to be honest I felt a bit disappointed, but serves me right, this is what happens if I allow expectations to govern what I see. So I had another look. Stockholder seems to have taken on Oiticica’s ideas and expanded his experimentation with colour to everyday objects and situations from tiny to monumental. I guess that I understand now that it is not the real objects I want to pay attention to but their many interfaces with the surrounding space (colour, texture, shape, 3D form, position in space all responding to environmental conditions) and the respective interactions extending to the people perceiving and interpreting them. For an idea of what I mean see the video of an interview with Stockholder (The University of Chicago, 2012).

Which gave me enough to think to make my brain smoke.


Gallagher, A. (2017) Hélio Oiticica: Exhibition Guide [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stella, F. (1968-1969) Gray Scramble [oil on canvas] [online]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]
Stella, F. (1992) The Fountain [print, relief, intaglio, stencil, collage and hand-colouring] [online]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (2011) My Work This January 2011 [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (n.d.) Jessica Stockholder: Art, Writing, Video Documentation [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.) Frank Stella. Anerican Painter and Printmaker [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The University of Chicago (2012) ‘Color Jam’: A conversation with Jessica Stockholder [online]. The University of Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]