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The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture

November 22, 2003 ­ February 15, 2004


To invest with life, to succeed in realizing the livingness of things, is the thread that runs through still life of the twentieth century.

- Dr. Susan Landauer, SJMA Chief Curator


The San Jose Museum of Art will open a major exhibition, The Not-So-Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture, on Friday evening, November 21 with a festive celebration featuring jazz prodigy Taylor Eigsti and his trio from 7pm to 10pm. Running through February 15, 2004, The Not-So-Still Life is organized by the San Jose Museum of Art and jointly curated by SJMA Chief Curator Dr. Susan Landauer and independent scholars Dr. William Gerdts and Dr. Patricia Trenton. The Not-So-Still Life includes more than 100 works of art by such artists as Guy Rose, Franz Bischoff, Armin Hansen, Lorser Feitelson, Stanton McDonald-Wright, Hans Burkhardt, Helen Lundeberg, Paul Wonner, Wayne Thiebaud, Mildred Howard, Edward Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, George Herms, Richard Shaw, Peter Shelton, Alan Rath, and Robert Therrien. (right: Guy Rose, From the Dining Room Window, c. 1910; oil on canvas, 35 x 23 inches; Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles II)

Divided into three sections: 1900 ­ 1930 (curated by Gerdts); 1920 ­ 1950 (curated by Trenton) and 1950 ­ 2000 (curated by Landauer), the exhibition traces the intriguing evolution of still life in California over the last century and, as the title Not-So-Still Life suggests, is a revisionist examination of the genre. According to the curators, what was once the most conservative form of artistic practice has been transformed into one of the more radical forms of expression. Contemporary still life is no longer "still" - it has not only moved off the table, but off the wall and into three dimensions. The exhibition examines a great variety of styles and media, from Impressionist paintings of apples and oranges to witty ceramic sculpture, funky assemblage art, and electronic media.

A running theme throughout the exhibition is the distinctive form of expression still life has taken in California. The first section (1900 ­ 1930; Gerdts) concentrates on the Impressionists of California, who are most commonly celebrated for landscape paintings. Brought to light are artists such as Joseph Kleitsch, Guy Rose, and Edgar Payne, who, while recognized for their finely executed Impressionist landscapes, painted strikingly beautiful still lifes as well, which have rarely been shown. While this section concentrates on the California Impressionists, it also includes artists working outside the plein-air tradition, such as Paul de Longpre and Edith White.

In the second section, the Not-So-Still Life expands into the early modern era (1920-1950; Trenton), when California still life painting became a viable vehicle for modernist artists with formal concerns - such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who introduced the Sychromist movement to America. Initially Bay Area artists remained more conservative than painters in Los Angeles, but became more experimental under the influence of Surrealism. Biomorphic forms and the juxtapostion of dreamstate imagery within realistic settings also emerged. Among the artists included in this section are Hans Burkhardt, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, and Stanton McDonald-Wright. (right: Alice B. Chittenden, Chrysanthemums, 1892; oil on canvas, 36 x 64 inches; The Redfern Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA)

Since 1950, there has been a resurgence of the still life, not just in the domain of realism, but also in areas as disparate as Beat assemblage, Pop Art, minimalism, pattern and decoration, conceptual art, installation, video, and media-based works. The third section of the exhibition (1950-2000; Landauer), demonstrates that the contemporary still life holds no strict boundaries, but crosses over into other categories, creating hybrids such as the collective object-as-portrait and the object-as-narrative works of art.

California still life, however, is ultimately a story of individual modes of expression that stretch the genre beyond its traditional form. The final section of The Not-So-Still Life presents a wealth of innovative interpretations by artists of national and international stature, including Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, Robert Arneson, Alan Rath, George Herms, Chester Arnold, Deborah Oropallo, Lari Pittman, Raimond Staprans, David Gilhooly, David Park, Robert Therrien, and Patssi Valdez, among others. Through this work the exhibition charts the revival of the still life, not as a conventional revision, but as a recoding of the genre in thoroughly contemporary terms. (right: Franz Bischoff, Spider Mums, n.d.; oil on canvas, 28 x 24 inches; Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Stiles ll)

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavish 225-page full-color catalogue with essays by the curators (co-published with UC Press). Nationally recognized art critic Carter Ratcliff, said of the book: "With their accounts of California still life in the time of the Impressionists and early-twentieth-century modernism, William H. Gerdts and Patricia Trenton add invaluable chapters to the history of American painting. And, as she traces the remarkable expansion of still life during the last half century, Susan Landauer demonstrates the centrality of this once-humble genre."

RLM note: Readers may enjoy these additional articles on Twentieth-Century still life painting:


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