Dead Mouse

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!

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 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!

Still Life Studies: Pomegranate with Dead Mice by Neal Auch

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“The amount of meaning is in exact proportion to the presence of death and the power of decay” — Walter Benjamin

I’ve been working on some new still life arrangements! This series of images use the same key elements — pomegranates, dead mice, and organ meats — to explore ideas around death and sexuality. A selection of these new images are available for purchase in my Etsy store.

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; their extraordinary fertility 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. (Special thanks to Ankixa of Casual Taxidermy for the rat hookup…)

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All still life compositions contain, to greater or lesser extent, a lament about the transience of all things. These images are, of course, no exception. The fruit, meat, and dead animals remind us of death and decay. The extinguished candle in the image above is one of my favourite iconographic elements from the history of still life. The candle is both a marker of the passage of time, and also a metaphor for a life extinguished. In all three images I’ve also included the tipped cup, a common metaphor for the fragility of life. In the above example this meaning is enhanced by the placement of the cup precariously close to the ledge.

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For this last shot I couldn’t resist including a phallic arrangement of cow trachea. Notice also the fetal mouse tucked away inside the pomegranate “womb” and the delightful way that the blood red tone in the fresh pig intestines pair with the vibrantly coloured pomegranate seeds and weird pink hues of the baby mice.

Enjoy!