Chicken Feet

A Collection of Easter-Themed Vanitas Still Life by Neal Auch

Still Life with Crucified Rat: This piece is now  available for purchase .

Still Life with Crucified Rat: This piece is now available for purchase.

“They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.” — John 19:17

My work, like the 17th century vanitas paintings that are my primary source of inspiration, often incorporates religious iconography. A common thread with this type of imagery is the juxtaposition between the dead flesh (a reminder of transience and decay) along side the crucifix (an image associated with salvation and rebirth). In this post, in honour of the season, I’ve decided to collect some of my Easter-themed still life work together. As of the time of writing all of these images are available for purchase in my online store; direct links are placed in the caption or else in the text just below the image.

Easter Vanitas: This piece is now available for purchase in my  online store .

Easter Vanitas: This piece is now available for purchase in my online store.

In the above image the pig intestine stands in for the cloth that would normally be draped over the cross. (In the Catholic tradition the colour coding of the cloth carries meaning; normally a purple cloth is draped on Palm Sunday as a symbol of Christ’s royalty, black on Good Friday as a symbol of death, and white on Easter Sunday as a symbol of rebirth.) This image also incorporates several of my favourite recurring motifs: the tipped cup (a symbol of the fragility of life), and the extinguished candle (a symbol of death).

Still Life with Clock and Crucifix: This piece is now available in my  online store .

Still Life with Clock and Crucifix: This piece is now available in my online store.

Vanitas still lifes frequently employ visual metaphors that make reference to the passage of time. Candles, fruit, and flowers all serve this role to some extent. But the clock in the image above is perhaps the most straightforward representation of this idea from the history of memento mori art. Note that time on the clock has been set to 3pm. This corresponds to the (approximate) time of Christ’s death. (The only Gospel writer to make note of the time of day of Christ’s death is Mark, who states that Jesus endured the torment of crucifixion for about 6 hours from the third hour — roughly 9am in modern parlance — putting his time of death at about 3pm.)

This triptych of images are somewhat older works, but have been made available for purchase due to renewed interest at shows and on social media.

The first image is a pieta of sorts. Here a porcelain statue of the virgin mother lovingly cradles the severed foot of a dead chicken and is draped in pig bowels that spill around her form like a dress (or perhaps suggesting blood).

The second image depicts a crucifix framed against an assortment of organ meats and dead flowers. The dead flowers suggest the biblical quote "Like a flower, he comes forth, then withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure." Job 14:2. The thorny rose stems, on the other hand, might suggest Christ's crown of thorns.

These same themes are, again, echoed in the third image of the triptych.

Happy Easter everyone!

Still Life Studies: Soap Bubbles and Decaying Flesh by Neal Auch

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“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn't enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death.” —Louis-Ferdinand Celine

The first time I came across soap bubbles as a motif in vanitas still life was in the context of a well-known painting by Jacques de Gheyn II. That piece contains all the staple tropes of memento mori art: reminders of transience (human skull, soap bubbles, cut flowers, wisps of smoke) placed alongside reminders of human folly (coins, a medal). I remember being fascinated by de Gheyn’s bubble and the surrealist imagery that he painted reflected within its surface (the leper’s rattle and the torture wheel). After seeing de Gheyn’s work I had long mused on the idea of incorporating soap bubbles into my own works, because they provide a very literal visual depiction of the central ideas of transience that underpins all memento mori art. However, I was a little put off by the challenge of the proposal; I had initially feared that the bubbles wouldn’t mesh well with the visual aesthetic of my work.

Recently, I finally got around to playing with bubbles and the results are this triptych of images. In the end I’m quite happy with the results. On a metaphorical level, of course, the bubbles resonate perfectly with the dead flesh and human remains; both are reminders that the beauty of life is fleeting. On an aesthetic level I think these images work better than I had expected. The bubbles add a welcome splash of colour to the otherwise largely desaturated palette and, from a compositional perspective, they provide interesting new options for filling in negative space.

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While I usually prefer to talk about metaphors and meaning in these posts, these bubble still lifes do provide a good opportunity to talk a bit about craft and camera technique. The reason that bubbles are technically challenging to shoot in the context of still life is precisely the same as the reason that they are thematically relevant: the bubbles do not last very long. In my studio work I use continuous lighting rather than speed-lights. This has the advantage of making it easier to adjust the lighting to get things exactly right (because “what you see is what you get” with continuous lights, no need to squint into your camera’s viewfinder after taking the exposure to figure out if things are looking right). The disadvantage of continuous lights is that you end up with somewhat long exposures. Shooting around the sweet spot on a 35mm lens at ISO 100 I will typically end up with shutter speeds as long as 0.1-1 sec. This kind of exposure is way too long to capture soap bubbles, which drift about and pop on a much shorter time scale. I don’t want to open the aperture and sacrifice depth of field, because sharpness is a big part of my aesthetic. So bumping up the ISO is the only option. To freeze the bubbles for this project I needed to push the ISO up to about 4000 which, on my camera, means dealing with a lot more noise than I’d like. So I ultimately opted on doing some composite work for these images. For each image I blended together 2 exposures: one clean shot at ISO 100 that I used for the majority of the arrangement, and another noisy shot at much higher ISO that was used only for the bubbles and their reflections in the silverware. Normally I don’t like using too much noise reduction on high ISO images because noise reduction algorithms generically blur the image (at least in terms of small scale structure). But here because it’s only the teeny tiny bubbles and nothing else that’s coming from the high ISO raw file it meant that I was able to apply noise reduction software in post production rather aggressively without sacrificing any important detail in the final (composited) image.

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Anyway… Enough camera technique bullshit. Next time I promise to talk more about death and less about ISO.

Enjoy!

Still Life Studies: Peeled Lemons by Neal Auch

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… After my cousin died,
my father died & then my brother. Next, my father’s older brother
& his wife. And, finally, after my mother died, I expected
to die myself. And because this happened very quickly
& because these were, really, almost all the people I knew,
I spent each day smashing dishes with one of my uncle’s hammers
& gluing them back together in new ways. …

—Kathleen Graber, The Magic Kingdom (full poem)

These two new vanitas still life compositions both use one of the most common and perhaps most cryptic motifs from the history of still life painting: the peeled lemon. Lemons show up frequently in the paintings of the Dutch masters that act as my primary inspiration for this project.

There seems to be some disagreement amongst critics about what, precisely, the lemon represents in art. Of course there is the obvious fact that the lemon, like any food items or flowers in still life, can act as a reminder of the passage of time. As with human life, these items and the pleasure they bring will be gone all too soon. Lemons were also a very expensive fruit at the time; this might suggest an interpretation that the fruit is meant to remind us of the vanity of wealth. The fact that the lemon almost always appears partially peeled also seems significant. Presumably where the fruit appears in this way it is because artist intended to draw attention to the contrast between the beautiful saturated tones of the peel and the sour taste of the flesh. It seems likely that this presentation is intended to convey a message of warning about superficial beauty. Often the peel hangs precariously over the edge of the table giving the composition a sense of depth and, perhaps, also implying a deeper meaning about the fragility of beauty.

For the first image in this series I paired the rotting peeled lemon with chicken feet and dead baby mice. One of the mice has been placed inside the flesh of the lemon, adding a secondary layer to metaphorical interpretation discussed in the previous paragraph.

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For the second image of this series I kept the motif of chicken feet, but added in a few new elements: human teeth and a broken ceramic plate. The broken plate is a fairly obvious metaphor for fragility and mortality. Here I was inspired not only by the history of still life painting, but also by the wonderful poem by Kathleen Graber that is quoted at the beginning of this post. (Do yourself a favour and go read the whole poem at the New Yorker; it’s a beautiful piece of writing.) Graber’s poem addressed fear of death in an intimate way and resonates with the central memento mori themes of my work. There is something very touching and human about the passage quoted above, in which the narrator attempts to cope with the loss of her loved ones by smashing dishes and glueing them back together. In my interpretation this is about denial of death and a hope for an afterlife; the narrator is engaged in a vain attempt to convince herself that what has been destroyed can somehow be remade.

Enjoy!

New Vanitas Compositions by Neal Auch

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“He blossoms like a flower, then withers; he flees like a shadow and does not last. ”  -- Job 14:2

I’ve completed 3 new still life composition. These images, like the 17th century “golden age“ Dutch still lifes that serve as my primary inspiration, are intended to provoke meditation on the inevitability of death and the transience of all things.

The first image in this series is a kind of floral arrangement. This image blends dying pink roses with my own somewhat macabre interpretation of plant life, constructed from various dead animal organs. (In particular, I employed chicken foot “flowers,“ cow trachea “stems,“ and pig ear “leaves“ in this arrangement.) Flower paintings of the 17th century often presented bouquets that would have been impossible to realize outside the confines of the canvas; often flowers that bloom in different seasons and derive from disparate geographical regions were depicted side-by-side. Such paintings, though often stunning in their apparent realism, were very much the products of the artists’ imaginations and were based on botanical illustrations rather than real live flowers. In an era of year-round produce and global imports we take for granted that almost any kind of flower or fruit can be purchased at the local supermarket at any time of year. Here, in an effort to reclaim some of the unreality of classical still life, I have constructed my own imaginary flowers of decaying flesh. This choice also serves to drive home the underlying memento mori themes of the piece. (Of course all floral still life compositions contain, to some extent, a lament about death. But those old images of flowers and fruit tend to look quaint and trite to contemporary audiences; I believe that one must adopt a more confrontational approach in order for the underlying metaphors to make sense in a modern context.)

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Photography tutorials emphasizes a few basic “rules“ of composition (like the rule of thirds, etc). But the Dutch masters employed a whole slew of interesting compositional techniques that are seldom found in more contemporary works. The second image in this series is based off one such approach. Here the organizing principle of the composition is a sense of instability; the duck, tipped cup, and chicken feet have been arranged to guide the eye towards the edge of the table and down into the void of negative space beyond. This kind of precarious placement of objects in still life is usually understood as a reminder of the fragility of life. Here this sense of instability is broken only by the etinguished candle in the background, perhaps a reminder that death is the only certainty of life.

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The last image of this series incorporates a few of my favourite bits of imagery. One is the “foot candelabrum“ idea that has surfaced many times before in my still life work. The other item of note is the tipped over cup, that is usually understood as a metaphor for the fragility of life. Here, and elsewhere, I like to pair this motif with some pig bowels spilling out over the table.

Enjoy!

New Still Lifes Available in my Etsy Store by Neal Auch

"My days are like lengthening shadows, and I wither away like grass." -- Psalms 102:11

I've added prints of these two images to my online store.

Both of these images draw inspiration from classical religious art and also from 17th century Dutch vanitas still life compositions. Here the Christian icons of the virgin mother and Christ on the cross -- respectively symbols of birth and rebirth -- are juxtaposed with rotting animal organs, as a reminder of the proximity of death and the transience of all things.

The first image is a pieta of sorts. Here a porcelain statue of the virgin mother lovingly cradles the severed foot of a dead chicken and is draped in pig bowels that spill around her form like a dress (or perhaps suggesting blood).

The second image of this series depicts a crucifix framed against an assortment of organ meats and dead flowers. The dead flowers suggest the biblical quote "Like a flower, he comes forth, then withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure." Job 14:2. The thorny rose stems, on the other hand, might suggest Christ's crown of thorns.

As in my last blog post: both of these images are a few years old, but neither has been available for online purchase until this moment. In fact, the image with the crucifix was made all the way back in Christmas of 2016 and this piece was initially constructed as a Christmas gift for an old friend, back when this art project was still in its infancy.

Enjoy!

New Portraits Available in my Etsy Store by Neal Auch

“Extreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror” ― Georges Bataille

I've added prints of these three portrait images to my Etsy store. These shots are all somewhat old, but they have not been available for purchase until this moment.

These portraits, like all of my works, are very much informed by the idea of memento mori (Latin: "remember to die") and draw inspiration from both religious portraiture and also 17th century vanitas still life paintings. These images might be thought of as an invitation for the viewer to reflect on the certainty of death and the fragility of life. In all three compositions we see beautiful models posed alongside decaying and rotting animal flesh, a reminder of the proximity of death and the vanity of pleasures of the flesh.

The first image of this series features infamous queer model Oscar James Grace holding an arrangement -- perhaps an offering -- of dead birds and dead flowers.

In the second image of this series model Laura Dynamite tenderly nurses a dead duck. I like the juxtaposition between the image of a woman nursing (an act associated to reproduction and the rearing of new life) with the decaying flesh that she cradles.

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Finally, in the third image of this series model Sarah Samedi poses alongside a real lampshade that I built out of raw and fetid goat stomach. This piece employs the rotting flesh lampshade as a reminder of the omnipresence of death. The eerie mottled orange light falling on the model's face reminds us of the spectre of mortality and juxtaposes nicely with the cooler tones of the studio lighting on her right hand side.

Enjoy!

Still Life with Peeled Lemon by Neal Auch

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“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

― Georges Bataille

Here’s another sample from my most recent batch of still life compositions. This image appropriates two key motifs from the golden age of Dutch still life painting. The first is the poultry on the right, hung in a manner typical of game still lifes, a juxtaposition that I find interesting because the mechanisms of contemporary meat production have almost nothing in common with game hunting in the 1600s.

The second key motif in this image is the peeled lemon balanced precariously near the edge of the table in the bottom left of the image. The peeled lemon in art has a long and fascinating history that intersects with ideas of horticultural science, economic considerations, and the novel challenges that representing the fruit accurately presents to the painter. (If you’re interested there’s a great talk by Mariet Westermann on the topic.)

Of course motifs like the lemon almost certainly meant different things to different artists and the appeal of the lemon to me lies in its connection to the themes of vanity and memento mori. On the surface we have the usual interpretation that the fruit, like the meat, will rot and thus presents a reminder of mortality. But there is also something interesting in the contrast between the lemon’s beautiful colour and the sourness of its taste. Moreover, one might be tempted to argue a connection between the serpentine coils of the peel and the story of the garden of Eden…

There’s another symbolic aspect of the lemon that I find interesting in connection with my own still life work. This is the fact that, although the lemon certainly looks like a part of nature as it appears in a painting, the fruit is in fact the result of hybridization and, in this sense, could also be thought of as “man made,” just like accompanying the vases and silverware. I find this resonance particularly interesting because the overwhelming majority of the animals that we eat are also “man made” in that particular sense. It is no secret that contemporary farmed animals — chickens especially — are the result of extensive selective breeding and there are a host of ethical concerns one might raises around this practice that do not apply to the lemon (or other produce).

I’ve spoken about how the metaphorical content of the fruit and meat in image above can be juxtaposed with the meanings those symbols would have had in classical still life paintings. There’s another, more technical, interesting juxtaposition I’d like to draw attention to: the lighting. While I’ve borrowed the motifs and compositional techniques of 17th century still life in making this arrangement, my choice of lighting is rather contemporary. Typically still lifes would have had only a single light source (probably a window in the painter’s studio) whereas here I opted for a two light set-up. The key light is on the right, impinging on the scene orthogonally to the line of sight, and I also added a fairly harsh “kicker” light coming in from behind the arrangement on the left. I opted for this non-canonical setup because otherwise the cow and pig feet might have fallen into shadow and lost visual weight. As a bonus, the kicker light adds a sense of depth and texture to the cow foot on the left. This kind of intersection between classical and modern meanings and techniques is really at the heart of what I enjoy about making still life photographs.

Enjoy!

Diseased Flesh: Close-Up Views of Sores on Chicken Feet by Neal Auch

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"I know what the disease wants." --Seth Brundle, dialogue from Cronenburg's The Fly (1986)

DISCLAIMER:  I have been doing this project long enough to know that a significant fraction of my viewers are interested in the aesthetics of my work, but rather less interested in my concerns about the ethics of eating animals.  And that's absolutely great and a perfectly valid way to interact with the work; I think that all art is open to interpretation and that the audience's interpretation(s) should have no priority over those of the artist themselves.  In discussing my work I'm faced with a bit of a tightrope to walk: on the one hand I don't want to obfuscate my own motivations in making this work, while on the other hand I am aware that there's a danger of alienating members of my audience who don't share my concerns about factory farming.  So I wanted to preface this post with a bit of a disclaimer: while I try to avoid coming off as preachy, the subject of these images is quite impossible to discuss without being kind of a huge bummer about the meat industry.  So if that's not something you're into, you might want to skip this particular set of images.  In the next post I promise I'll have some cool creepy shots of teeth that look like mountain ranges.  But for those of you who are into this kind of thing...

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“What the meat industry figured out is that you don't need healthy animals to make a profit. Sick animals are more profitable...  Factory farms calculate how close to death they can keep animals without killing them."  --Jonathan Safran Foer, from Eating Animals

The animals that we consume are sick, but for the most part this ugliness remains hidden from the consumer.  Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by chicken's feet is that they provide a rare example of a food product where sores and deformities and disease markers are easy to see.  These images continue with my ongoing studies of the various visible sores that present on commercially available chicken feet.  It's worth noting that I do not make any special effort to get my hands on diseased animal organs, these kinds of sores are very common.

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The more I look at these things the more visually interesting I find them.  The colours are incredible: that contrast between the deep black at the heart of the sore and the weird yellow skin sloughing off and the pale healthy flesh that surrounds it all.  I have struggled with what to do about that yellow flesh, in particular.  It is such a vibrant colour that it almost looks oversaturated and I'm tempted to dial back the saturation on that particular channel to keep the image from looking too cartoonish.  But, at the same time, this really is the colour of that flesh.  Enjoy!

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Floral Still Life Compositions by Neal Auch

The Sick Rose, by William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This image is my interpretation of a floral still life arrangement.  I've always been fascinated by those old paintings of flower arrangements that were so popular amongst Dutch still life painters in the 17th century.  In part, this fascination stems from the fact that the pretty trappings of such images were ultimately meant to convey a rather morbid message about mortality and the transience of all things.  Here I constructed my interpretation of such an image, using cow trachea "stems,", chicken foot "flowers," and some fallen duck gizzard "fruit" for the finishing touch.  I chose to use only chicken feet with visible sores an disease markers for this shot, in part because I liked how the sores make up the central region of each flower, and in part because I felt like it worked better with the underlying visual metaphor of the piece.  

Initially I composed that image vertically, since most of those old floral still life paintings were composed in that manner.  But, for whatever reason, I just couldn't find a crop that I liked and ultimately I ended up breaking with tradition by adding the negative space to the (camera) right of the image for a horizontal composition that I like much better.  (Probably all for the best anyway, since the web punishes you for shooting tall...)

This wasn't my first pass at building a floral arrangement from those ingredients.  A less minimalist variant is this one:

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Here I kept the same basic ingredients, but also added some real dead flowers and plant life, along with the pig heart and intestines.

Enjoy!

New Macro Photography by Neal Auch

I've added some new macro images to my Inside gallery.  For this last session I focused on two subjects: pig intestines and chicken feet.  The former I've tried to use for close-up work several times in the past but without much success; I just ended up with a lot of nondescript pale wrinkly looking stuff.  It turns out that the solution is to move further down the digestive tract: the large intestine makes for a more visually interesting subject than does the small intestine.  Enjoy!

Framed Dead Things by Neal Auch

Over the last couple of weeks I've been exploring framed dead animal parts.  Of course regular fine art prints of all these images are available, but I'm also doing one-of-a-kind prints where each photo is framed in the same frame that appears in the photo.  Those unique pieces are signed, sealed, ready to hang, and the frames have been thoroughly cleaned of all traces of animal gore.  As always you can contact me about prints here , but I'll also have a table set up at the Hamilton Ontario Art Crawl (on James St N) on Friday November 11.  Enjoy!

New Macro Photography by Neal Auch

I've added some new close-up shots to my gallery Inside.  The first image, previewed above, is a close-up view of the thumb of a black chicken.  (Black chickens -- also called Silkie -- are totally a thing that exists, it turns out.)  When I first noticed this weird double toenail I assumed it was a malformation of some kind; I've spent enough time looking a chicken feet up close to know that sores, defects, and other disease markers are pretty common on the meat we purchase.  However, after a quick search on google it turns out that Silkie chicken feet just naturally look like that.  This beast is quickly becoming my favourite kind of chicken.

The remaining shots are all close-up views of various parts of a lamb's head.  In order: the teeth, the nose cavity (sawed open to reveal the bone structure), the base of the skull, and the ear cavity (ear removed). 

Enjoy!

New Still Life Arrangements by Neal Auch

Crucifix with chicken feet and pig casings.

Crucifix with chicken feet and pig casings.

I've added several new arrangements to my Still gallery.  Probably my favourite is the image above.  For whatever reason the arrangement reminds me of Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi,  a nun and Christian mystic who would be canonized as a saint some years after her death, in the late 1600s.  I've always been fascinated by de Pazzi, whose self-flagellation and nail-lined corsets suggest something more like masochism than religious ecstasy.  The Wiki page on de Pazzi contains this delightful quote about her death, from Armando Favazza's Bodies Under Siege:

At about age 37, emaciated and racked with coughing and pain, she took to her bed until she died four years later. Her painful gums were so badly infected that her teeth fell out, one by one. Her body was covered with putrefying bed sores, but when the sisters offered to move her she warned them off for fear that by touching her body they might experience sexual desires... A large statue of her holding a flagellant whip can be seen in her church in Florence, where people around the world still come to pay her tribute.

Enjoy!

Book bound in sheep stomach with dead flowers and sheep stomach lampshade.

Book bound in sheep stomach with dead flowers and sheep stomach lampshade.

Dead flower with chicken feet and cow tongue.

Dead flower with chicken feet and cow tongue.

New Macro Photography by Neal Auch

When you purchase chicken feet from the butcher it's not uncommon to find sores and abscesses.  (This is not particularly surprising if you know anything about how chickens are farmed.)  Normally I avoid using those feet in any of my photography, or else I remove the blemishes in photoshop.  For these shots (recently added to my gallery Inside) I decided to go the opposite route: getting up close and intimate to present a macro view of the sores on a couple of feet from a recent purchase.  Enjoy! 

New Still Life by Neal Auch

Still life arrangement with chicken feet, cow foot, pig intestine, duck gizzards, and dead flowers.

Still life arrangement with chicken feet, cow foot, pig intestine, duck gizzards, and dead flowers.

I've added a couple of new still life arrangements to my Still gallery.  The arrangement above, which mixes animal parts with dead flowers from my backyward, was loosely styled after the still life compositions of Cezanne and, in particular, Goya whose work with meat has always fascinated me.  Enjoy!

Still life: candle holder with chicken feet.

Still life: candle holder with chicken feet.