Houston

“American Still Life 1945–1983”

At its simplest the genre of still life focuses on common objects within controlled settings. Any serious survey, however, will reveal a surprising diversity of intentions even when confined to still life in American art of the last four decades, as is this exhibition, organized by Linda Cathcart. These parameters also permit a decentered examination of issues that have preoccupied artists, critics, and others since World War II.

The implicit objective of “American Still Life 1945–1983” may well be less analytic or theoretical. Perhaps the presentational character of the exhibition can be best summarized as a display, in Cathcart’s own gravid phrase, of “individuality within a tradition.” The selection is broad and, in large, excellent. Cathcart has fairly distributed her choices (104 works, 67 artists) across a spectrum which ranges in subjective density from Ed Baynard’s unabashed decorativeness on the short end to Gregory Gillespie’s extraordinary Forty-Fifth Birthday, 1980–81, painting—the insidious life of natura morta—on the long end.

Still life provides a quiet zone in the art world where one has come to expect assuring signs of social order on a table top. Such gentility of form can be found in the polished surfaces of Paul Wiesenfeld, in the immutable and sterile ideality of William Bailey, or in the trompe l’oeil panache of James Valerio. These are artists who nuance closed surfaces to remove from sight any seams or tears in their plenary world.

Much of the exhibition fits more comfortably into a middle range of painterly (open-surface) versions of the natural attitude such as those of, predictably, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Louisa Matthiasdottir, or of the more sophisticated opticians Vija Celmins and Janet Fish. The latter’s testament to the pearly sensuality of seafood on newsprint is a particularly strong instance of perceptualist vision.

But not all still-lifers are quietists. They may try, in fact, to unsettle our esthetic or cultural consciousness in a variety of ways. Wit, for example: we infer from both Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Colescott that painting is a “piece of cake.” In the realm of the allusive, Manny Farber gives the viewer a playful turn around the reel of (still) life, while Donald Roller Wilson paints his tongue in his cheek with exquisite skill and a clutch of chiaroscuro memories. George Segal’s Cézanne Still Life #3, 1981, may be more loving than sly in its poignant translation of the master’s difficult language into plaster. Then there is the grand, bombastic wit of Philip Guston and his anarchic allegories of sandwiches and things which in so many ways elevate him above all others.

Yet it is artists such as Troy Brauntuch, Jedd Garet, and Jim Sullivan who function as deconstructors in this context. Their works are the ones that most effectively trouble the conventions of the genre, derailing the mechanisms of representation that others are content to confirm, refine, or modify in small stages. Brauntuch reduces visibility within the perceptual field, which leaves us to uncertain readings of its ambiguous structure; Garet, on the other hand, accomplishes a fractious inversion of objective order and artistic protocol; while Sullivan shows us plainly what frangible meaning we habitually invest in pictorial signs.

Given the considerable number of very good works we have too little space to mention, it may seem a gesture of ingratitude to talk about the “missing.” There are, however, important absences: Jim Dine, Ivan Albright, and most conspicuous to us, Edwin Dickinson, whose influence makes itself visible in the paintings of Catherine Murphy and Richard Piccolo. On the other hand, it should be said that Cathcart, in her choices and organization of the work, has not belabored the exhibition with historicism.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom