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]