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Still Life Transformed

We call it Still Life. Our Roman and Renaissance ancestors used the starker term Nature Morte. Nature Dead. Probably the best known still lifes were Cezanne’s many paintings of apples and oranges on cloths and in bowls. Dead, because once picked their lives are finished. In the pecking order of important art, still lifes usually occupied the lowest rung. A droll and sometimes dark young French artist, Benoît Maire, is determined to rebirth still life conventions in a series of expos this year, one of the most seductive at a Bordeaux winery, the high end Chasse-Spleen, that doubles as a contemporary art center.

This spring and summer a collection by several living artists take on Nature Morte with clearly contemporary approaches. Aiming to enter inside the notion of transformation in ordinary life, which inevitably provokes us to reflect on form, time and distance.

One object is a simple bentwood chair—but the chair’s woven wicker bottom has been broken by what seems like a large, tawny female breast. On closer examination the breast turns out to be an enormous coconut seed, edible and therefor dying as food, but possessed of unborn life if planted in the right tropical soil. A simple brass form that Maire calls a “chateau” supports another sort of former “chateau” which is actually a large shiny oyster shell; the linkage of the two handsome objects asks us to reflect on the nature of past and present habitations, once alive, now museum objects. A tropical insect becomes a glowing multi-colored glass lamp. Electrically generated “wind” creates night and day, time and memory upon a glass planet.

Maire’s own paintings frequently take us into clouds, the sort of cumulus bundles that promise rain but threaten toxicity. Painters since the Renaissance have been pre-occupied with clouds both as sources of meteorological destruction and as dreamlike signals from the heavens. Softness or brutality. Sublime sunset or Hurricane Maria. As in his transformational sculptures and minimalist “chateaux”, Maire’s clouds dance between both. What might be rain falling or evaporation drawing water from the earth might also be a world drenched in info-tech data rising and falling relentlessly into the Internet cloud that records and distributes all the details of our daily existence. Maire curated the Nature Morte show at Chateau Chasse-Spleen, using both his own work and pieces from 19 other artists ranging from Denmark to Mexico and the US. Chateau Chasse-Spleen has long been a high quality producer of red and white Bordeaux wines, but it’s also a pricey B&B where each room gives directly onto the exhibition spaces. Outside the grounds are given over to a variety of earthart installations..

More of Benoît Maire’s pieces, including several of his transformational sculptures, film shorts and paintings are running all

summer at the CAPC, Bordeaux’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and it’s there that the illusions and elusions of StillLife/Nature Morte turn deeper and darker. A graceful ballerina’s foot supports a crude brass “chateau.” A cobalt winged lion roars through his seashell snout. Clouds release black rain.

Transformation and choice echo through all Maire’s work. He calls us to remember as we create to never forget that dreams of becoming always contain the broken skeletons of earlier dreams.

Maire, of course, is not your standard artist, and not just because he works in half a dozen forms. He spent several years working on philosophy at La Sorbonne; philosophical reflection bubbles out of all his pieces, sometimes touching ancient Greek rules of measure and proportion, elsewhere asking us to understand inside the chaos of so much contemporary art. To understand what many of today’s finest artists are doing as they examine the brokenness of modern life, he asks us also to look backwards to earlier centuries, specifically to inhabit the battle between the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment and the Romantic response to 19th century industrial power when neo-realism and impression sought to capture the light and the darkness of modernism. There in the sweetness of Maire’s clouds hides the troubled chemical tale of warmth, comfort and convenience that also threatens us all with collective global suffocation.

As in all Still Life (a Dutch derived term) still life can never be alive; once life is still it has ceased. Still Life, or Nature Morte, is death, yet it promises a transformation into life. Among the very earliest still lifes were the paintings of birds, fruits and beasts on the walls of Egyptian burial tombs, made in expectation that the deities would turn the flat paintings into real fruits and platters that would feed the dead as they walked forward into the afterlife. Dreams, conflict and choice permeate these transformational pieces and images filling the CAPC’s expo halls in Bordeaux and at the Chasse-Spleen chateau half an hour’s drive away in the world’s richest wine country.


Frank Browning © 2018

Frank Browning was an editor at Ramparts Magazine and later a science reporter for NPR. He has lived in Paris since 2000. He is the author of eight books including The Fate of Gender (published June 2016), The Monk & The Skeptic, An Apple Harvest: Recipes & Orchard Lore (with Sharon Silva), Apples: Story of the Fruit of Temptation, A Queer Geography, The Culture of Desire, The American Way of Crime (with John Gerassi) and The Vanishing Land.


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