Vanitas

The Crucified Rat: A New Easter Vanitas 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.

“Our Saviour.  Two thieves.  One is supposed to have been saved and the other…damned.” — Vladimir, speaking to Estragon, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

As the story goes, Christ was crucified alongside two thieves. One thief mocked Jesus in his agony, while the other used his final moments to beg for forgiveness. This he was granted; Christ promised the second thief salvation. (“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43)

This episode is often interpreted as a call to piety. “Do not despair,“ St Augustine tells us “one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.“ My take on the story of the two thieves is rather closer to the musings of the derelict vagabonds in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For them, the story of the two thieves illustrates only that the whims of fate are arbitrary and capricious.

This new still life image was composed specifically with Easter in mind and draws considerable inspiration from the story of the two thieves. (The piece is currently available for purchase in my online store.)

Taking a cue from Beckett’s taste for ambiguity, I will leave it to the viewer to decide which of the three men crucified at Calvary the rat is intended to represent…

Happy easter friends!

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: 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!

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!

Variations of a Theme: Pig Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch

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"And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains uncertain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all?"  —St. Augustine, from City of God.

These new still life images continue with my explorations of variations of a theme in vanitas composition.  Both images use the same basic ingredients, and both speak to the same underlying themes of mortality and transience.  Both images use the same pig's foot and both revisit the "tipped cup" visual metaphor which appears frequently in my work, and in vanitas composition in general.  For the image above I particularly enjoyed the interplay of colours between the pig bowels spilling out of the glass.  These start out reddish, like the gore coming closest to the bottom of the frame, but get increasingly pale and grey after having been thawed and re-frozen over and over and over.  (I reuse the same organs over and over in my shots, replacing pieces only when absolutely necessary, in an effort to minimize my financial support of the meat industry.)

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While I've already spoken at length about the relation of my work with "meat as art" to vanitas compositions, I have said rather little about another, perhaps even more obvious, comparison with art history: paintings of butcher's shops and market scenes.  Such works were a sort of precursor to the golden age of 17th century Dutch still life paining.  The analogy with my own approach goes beyond the simple choice of subject matter, since to some extend a critique of butchering seems implicit in many of these works.  Painters like Passarotti and Carracci depicted butcher's shops and sought to emphasize the rough crudeness and lack of sensitivity of the butcher's assistance.  In the 16th and 17th centuries theologians often viewed a slaughtered animals as symboling the death of a believer and to combine it with the warning:

"You who with much pleasure

Slay a swine of calf,

Think how on the Lord's Day

You will stand before God's Judgement." --Groote comptoir almanach, Amsterdam 1667

I don't know if it was intentional or not, but I certainly feel a similar sense of sadness and critique of butchering when I look at Goya's famous still life with the rib and head of lamb.  Of course the state of the meat industry in Europe in the 16th century is in no way analogous to what we have in North America today and I certainly don't imagine that Goya, Passarotti, or Carracci were coming to their subject with the same kind of political biases that I have.  However, I do find it fascinating to muse on what analogies there are.

Enjoy!

Variations of a Theme: Cow Foot with Tipped Cup by Neal Auch

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"You're on earth.  There's no cure for that."  --Samuel Beckett, from Endgame

Memento mori -- meaning "remember that you have to die" -- refers to a medieval Christian practice of regular reflection on mortality, the vanity of earthly life, and the transient nature of earthly goods.  The theory behind this practice forms the basis and logic behind vanitas still lifes, an art form which I've developed something of a fixation on of late.  I've always thought of Beckett's Endgame as a kind of literary version of a vanitas, a stunningly hopeless meditation of the essential themes of the meaningless of life and the transience of all things.  I don't know if Beckett had this connection in mind when he wrote his play, but I like to imagine he did.  (He had a great love of art and was extraordinarily well educated, so it's completely unfathomable.)

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These latest additions to my still life gallery.  Both are variations of a theme, using similar ingredients arranged in slightly different ways.  This kind of variation of a theme is something that I used to avoid in my work, but lately I have been embracing more and more.  In part this is because I think that the repetition helps to drive home the underlying message, and in part this is because I'm more and more aware of the tradition of still life painting from which these works have emerged (where repetition and variation of elements in this manner were quite commonplace).

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!

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!

Vanitas Still Life Compositions by Neal Auch

"For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth." Psalms 102:3

The images in this diptych were loosely composed in the style of 17th century Dutch "vanitas" still life paintings, which were meant to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death.  Often this was achieved by contrasting symbols of wealth and power (books, expensive silverware, etc) with symbols of death and mortality (skulls, clocks, rotting fruit, etc).

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 To adapt the vanitas to my aesthetic I opted, as always, to come at the underlying themes a bit more confrontationally.  For these shots I borrowed the compositional style from the works of Pieter Claesz.  For comparison I included an example of his "monochrome" work that served as a source of inspiration for me. 

One of my favourite metaphors for death in these kinds of works is the extinguished candle.  The smoke wisps suggest a life extinguished and even the candle itself is a reminder of the transience of all things: the passage of time is recorded as the wax burns ever lower.

Capturing the wisps of smoke in those images was the only non-trivial part of these shots, from a technical standpoint.  I could have faked it in photoshop, of course, but I wanted to give a shot at getting the effect in camera.  I quickly realized that the smoke doesn't show up in the exposure unless you have a fairly harsh backlight coming in through the smoke.  Since this would have over-lit the scene and spoiled the atmosphere, I opted to do these shots as composites.  I did one exposure with the backlight off to capture the majority of the scene, then another with the backlight on just for the smoke.  It was then trivial to open these two as layers in photoshop and simply paint the smoke wisps from the second exposure into the first.  Voila!