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]


Part 3, project 1, exercise 3: Figure and portrait – tonal study

Updated on 5 March 2017 (Harvard referencing)..

22 July 2016. A first opportunity to test whether I am able to emulate rather than illustrate using paint instead of drawing equipment. I think I realised now that, when my tutor told me to be more creative, she was not talking about the ideas I want to transport, but my use of colour. To be honest I am a bit confused at the moment, because I need to take the study guide as a rough framework only and chose whatever I feel is adequate as a technique. There is so much contemporary work around that I do not know where to start to take me off my well-worn tracks.

First of all I had another look at Vitamin P (Schwabsky, 2002) and some of the more figurative painters:

23 July 2016. Karen Kilimnik (*1955), an American installation artist and painter, was the first of these, with three examples of seemingly naive but artificial-looking portraits on (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 174-175 ). I have never been sure whether to feel attracted or repelled by “pseudo-naive” art and an interview I found made me feel strangely alienated from her (Mulleawy and Mulleawy, 2011). The answers she gives appear deliberately both careless and cryptic. Since I am looking for inner resonance, I decided that I would leave her for the moment.

When studying the examples included by Marlene Dumas (*1953, South Africa) I feel less distance. Her subjects radiate more than sheer presence, they present a fate on their skin (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 100-101). On the other hand, Dumas actively employs “marketing gags” by addressing our animal instincts in order to attract attention. This is something I have always had a big problem with myself. I am no self-promoter at the best of times and have self-inflicted moral standards, which I feel are getting in my way of developing into a 21st century artist.

For me it is far easier to connect with John Currin (*1962, USA) and his paintings (e.g. Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 68-69), which transport famous historical subjects into the present. While I do not like his in places gaudy style, the absurd situations and combinations resonate as if we shared a common language.

German-born Eberhard Havecost (*1967), on the other hand, captures fleeting everyday moments, seemingly irrelevant scenery and at the same time lifestyles typical of the 21st century (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 136-137). Although to me the chosen subjects appear cool and unengaged from the painter’s perspective, I have always liked the idea of paying attention to the sideshows of life. His way of painting reminds me somewhat of the approach typical of Lomo photographers (Lomography, 2017). Very similar approaches are chosen also by the Swedish Cecilia Edefalk (*1954, Sweden) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 102-103), Wilhelm Sasnal (*1972, Poland) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 288-289), Mantalina Psoma (*1967, Greece) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 262-263), Elizabeth Peyton (*1965, USA) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 244-245), or even my former school colleague and successful painter, Lisa Kunit (*1966, Austria).

All of the above have in common a relatively naturalistic style reminding of photography depicting everyday subjects in a quasi apropos fashion, which in Vitamin P is described as an indicator of contemporaneity (Schwabsky, 2002, p. 287). But Vitamin P was published in 2002 originally and contemporaneity will without doubt have moved on since then. So I moved on to study the contemporary artists suggested by my tutor.

From the first moment I loved the weird use of colour and the wonderfully ironic approach by Glenn Brown (*1966, UK) (Brown, 2017), as e.g. in “The Dance of the Seven Veils” (Brown, 2014) or “Cactus Land” (Brown, 2012) and a video (Gagosian Gallery, 2014). Less sure what to make of her work I am when looking at Stella Vine (*1969, UK), here is a selection (Vine, 2017a, scroll down a bit for the great number of portraits). When reading the analysis (Vine, 2017b) of her personal approach posted on her website, it reads like a page-long apology to the art market and like the diary of a girl who tries to make sense of the world that keeps hurting her. Alex Katz (*1927, USA), who held a retrospective exhibition in Salzburg in 2013, I think might serve as a template for all the painters mentioned above. His approach is like that in 21st century painting, his subjects appear largely uninvolved (type “Alex Katz” into the image browser to get an overview). I wonder why this “cool”style bears such an attraction to the viewer. Maybe it leaves open a lot of room for interpretation, but I find that extremely difficult to tolerate in my own painting. I want to transport stronger feelings and it makes me hurt if I can find none.

Since, however, I first need to get into a habit of sketching with paint, I went to look for methods of doing so. Denis Castellas (*1951, France) uses a way of combining painted shapes and line, which looks very attractive to me, although I guess that there is a major element of drawing in his sketches (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 62-63). Similar, but more energetic, are the sketches by Merlin Carpenter (*1967, UK, Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 60-61). Again, the figures remind me of photography. The painted areas behind and to the sides help to position the figures in space and support the movement. Since this was not quite enough to establish a firm background, I searched for “figure sketching contemporary” on the web. Most of what I came up with was of course drawing, but I found a selection of painted sketches by Robert Burridge (*1943, USA), which strongly appeal to me, e.g. “Seated Nude” (Burridge, n.d.(a)),  “Blue Nude” (Burridge, n.d.(b)) and “Suze” (Burridge, n.d.(c)) . I would like to learn a style like that in my painted sketchbook. Regarding tone I was advised by my tutor to have a look, among others, at the work of Euan Uglow (1932-2000, UK). Again the subjects appear distant and uninvolved, but the use of tone in his nudes is wonderfully delicate and I am quite drawn to the structure and colour of his backgrounds (Plotkin, 2010).

24 July 2016. Bearing the above and my subject idea in mind I prepared two split backgrounds, one monochrome and one using the colours I had left over from the previous exercise, in my square sketchbook and I tried to paint my husband kneeling down in my workshop, pretending to do some garden work. I had to work fast and divide the work up into several very short sessions, since the position was very awkward to keep for more than a very few minutes. These are the results (Fig. 1-2):

Figure 1. Sketchbook – black and white acrylic sketch


Figure 2. Sketchbook – acrylic sletch using a limited palette

I prefer the black and white version, also because my husband appeared more relaxed the first time over. In the coloured sketch it is obvious that the position hurt both feet and spine. Overall I was surprised that it was possible to create, in a very short time, a believable impression of volume and movement in my square 20 cm sketchbook with a comparatively large flat brush. In the coloured study my husband’s face is relatively close to life also. I will have to give the background of the finished painting particular attention, however. This is not a particular strength of mine yet. In order to make progress here, I will refer to the researched artists, in particular “Suze” by Robert Burridge (see above).

For the painting itself, my husband attending to the maize plants in our little “urban plot”, I prepared a 60 x 80 cm painting carton with a split background layer, one with my “skin” colour and one with a mix of sap green, yellow and primary blue for the maize. I would like to keep and improve on the above loose style here and will see whether I am able to do this on a larger scale, while keeping in mind a what I think might be a contemporary approach to the subject (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Prepared background

2 August 2016. After a very intense 10 days doing other things, including having to find a new lawyer, again, and painting our son’s bedroom after a planning phase of a mere 4 years (:o)), I finished my exercise yesterday. I could have gone on forever, proesumably, but my tutor pointed out to me to be more sensitive about when to stop painting and there was a clear message by the painting, saying “Enough!” So this is what I got (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Finished sketch, acrylics on 60 x 80 cm canvas board

There is a certain roughness in my approach to the subtle tonal differences on skin and fabric, but I decided that I would not refine them in order not to destroy the loose painting. In some places I think that the technique was quite successful, especially when looking at both hands and arms with the light coming from behind. I was also quite happy with the fabric and face. Less successful were the legs, but the photo looks much worse in this respect than the actual painting. What I like in the background was the effect of the white behind my husband’s back and the darker earth colours left of his knees, both helping to shape the volume of his body. With a few exceptions I think that I was successful in using tonal differences in forming a believable representation of a three-dimensional body in space.


Brown, G. (2014) Cactus Land [oil on panel] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Brown, G. (2014) The Dance of the Seven Veils [oil on panel] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Brown, G. (2017) Biography [online]. Glenn Brown, London. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Burridge, R. (n.d.(a)) Seated Nude [sepia and India ink on BFK Rives white drawing paper] [online]. Robert Burridge, Arroyo Grande. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Burridge, R. (n.d.(b)) Blue Nude [acrylic on gessoed Fabriano watercolour paper] [online]. Robert Burridge, Arroyo Grande. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Burridge, R. (n.d.(c)) Suze [acrylic on gessoed Fabriano watercolour paper] [online]. Robert Burridge, Arroyo Grande. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Gagosian Gallery (2014) GLENN BROWN at Gagosian West 21st Street, New York [online]. Gagosian Gallery, New York. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Kunit, L. (2017) Galerie [online]. Lisa Kunit, Vienna. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Lomography (2017) Photos [online]. Lomography. Available at: [Accessed 5 March 2017]

Mulleavy, L. and Mulleavy, K. (2011) Karen Kilimnik [online]. Interview Magazine, 15 March 2011. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Plotkin, N. (2010) Euan Uglow [online]. Painting Perceptions, San Diego. Available at: [Accessed 22 July 2016]

Schwabsky, B. (2002a) Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting. Phaidon Press.

Vine, S. (2017a) Paintings, Drawings and Objects [blog] [online]. Stella Vine, Alnwick. Available at: [Accessed 6 March 2017]

Vine, S. (2017b) Stella’s Journal [blog] [online]. Stella Vine, Alnwick.
Available at: [Accessed 6 March 2017]