Extinguished Candle

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 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.

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!