Dead Flowers

Still Life with Raccoon Skull by Neal Auch

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“I carry death in my left pocket. Sometimes I take it out and talk to it: "Hello, baby, how you doing? When you coming for me? I'll be ready.” ― Charles Bukowski

I first spotted this little beast last fall, just off a route I walk most days, nestled discretely amongst the dead grass and pop bottles and abandoned beggars’ signs.

I meant to collect the corpse and use it for art while it was still fresh, but no sooner did I formulate this plan than the snow and ice came hard. Excavating the corpse would have required a shovel and some elbow grease and — as those of you who know me in real life can attest — I’m far too pretty for manual labour.

And so I waited for the spring thaw to free the beast. All that could be salvaged was the skull; the rest crumbled to dust when I tried to pick it up.

Still Life Studies: Apples and Dead Flesh by Neal Auch

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Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:

Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,

The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,

The costly aversion of the eyes from death—

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs. —Philip Larkin

This new series of still life compositions continue in my efforts to reinterpret 17th century vanitas still life through the lens of a more contemporary (and secular) worldview. Images of this genre have historically emphasized the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. I do not know if the term “vanitas“ as it is used in association with these works is a reference to the famous quotation “All is vanity!“ from the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, but the analogy is certainly fitting and I believe that any sensible reading of that text will yield interesting resonances with the history of still life painting.

As in all still life compositions the fruit, meat, and flowers are intended as reminders of mortality. The (largely Christian) 17th century audience of the “golden age” Dutch paintings that serve as my primary inspiration would have understood these items as reminders that all is transient because, like us, these food items will soon rot and decay. However, to make the underlying memento mori message of such works resonate with a modern audience I believe that one must adopt a rather more macabre and confrontational aesthetic. Otherwise one runs the risk of producing imagery that appears trite and quaint which is, after all, how I believe that most modern viewers think about classical still life art.

Both of the images in this series incorporate rotting apples. These are usually understood as a metaphor for temptation and sin, due to the association of the apple with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, the “forbidden fruit“ of the book of Genesis isn’t actually named in the bible; the popular tradition of putting an apple in this role comes from artists’ renderings. Of course the distinction is immaterial for my work, since I’m drawing off the artistic and cultural meaning of such symbols; I have no investment whatsoever in theological accuracy.

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While both images in this series show the apples in a rather decrepit state, for the second image the fruit is completely destroyed and spilling out over the table. I mixed some rancid pig bowels in with the rotting fruit to emphasize the decay. I also hid a teeny tiny dead baby mouse in the broken apple. I feel like this resonates well with the themes of temptation associated to the apple because mice have historically been used in still life painting as a sexual metaphor. (The extraordinary fertility of mice means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction.) It’s a bit hard to see this detail in the online version of this image but it will be very clear in a large format print, so I think of this kind of thing as a sort of Easter egg for customers.

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

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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 added prints of 5 new images to my online store.

This series is a selection of some of my most recent studies of memento mori art. As with my previous still life work, these compositions appropriate the motifs of 17th century Dutch still life and attempt to blend the metaphorical content of classical vanitas paintings with my own horror-film-inspired visual aesthetic.

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The first three images of this series all incorporate the same key elements — pomegranates, dead mice, and organ meats — to explore ideas around death and sexuality. The pomegranate is a common element in still life painting that is usually understood to represent temptation and sin, due to the role the fruit plays in the Greek myth The Rape of Persephone. I found it natural to pair the pomegranate along with mice, another common element from the history of still life. Mice also typically have sexual connotations in still life paintings; the extraordinary fertility of mice means that they are often interpreted as symbols of lechery and destruction. In these images I pair the adult mouse with a handful of dead baby mice, reinforcing the underlying themes of sexuality.

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I love the way the blood red colours of the pig intestines spilling about in these shots pairs with the saturated tones of the pomegranate. I also really enjoyed working with baby mice for this series; these are a visually interesting subject that I’ve only come to appreciate recently.

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The last two images in this series incorporate dying flowers and rotting fruit, both very common motif from the history of still life painting. All still life compositions contain, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things and my works are certainly no exception. While the arrangements of flowers and fruits and breakfast tables in the boring section of the museum can look boring to contemporary viewers, their intended audience would have understood these works as a reminder that life, like the food and flowers, will soon be be gone.

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All of these images are available in my Etsy store as 8X12" fine art print. The pieces come signed and titled and matted to fit readily into a standard 11X14" frame. I am happy to offer free shipping for customers in Canada or the US.

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!

A Vanitas Composition for Easter by Neal Auch

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"Now from noon until three, darkness came over all the land. At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.”  Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the rest said, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to save him.  Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart.  And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised." -- Matthew 27:45-53

Christian imagery shows up fairly regularly in my works, and I've recently developed something of a fixation on vanitas compositions.  With Easter at hand, it was only natural to combine these elements.  As I have discussed previously on this blog, the extinguished candle is a frequent visual metaphor for death in vanitas compositions, and the tipped cup is a symbol of the fragility of life.  The reddish intestines spilling from the cup suggest blood, but also wine, and have always reminded me of the last supper.  I added the intestines draped over the cross  as a final touch.  (Readers who, like me, were subjected to a Catholic upbringing may note that the colour of the draping is off: traditionally the cross would be draped in black on good Friday, representing the death of Jesus.)  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.