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One of modern age’s great obsessions is the desire for simplicity.  You see this concept everywhere—lifestyle gurus sell millions of books about simplifying your life.  Hollywood blockbusters are about salt-of-the-earth country boys with a monosyllabic moral code who become action heroes and easily defeat the bad guys. TED talks distill data science into a short anecdote from primary school.  The infatuation for simplicity is omnipresent—in fad diets, in investment strategies, in household management, above all else, in politics (boy howdy is the desire to make things simple running rampant in politics!).

This is a shame: for simplicity is a fallacy.  Things are not simple at all.  Generally, the more one studies a field, the more one realizes how complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and messy that field is. A lead ball and a feather fall at the same rate…except in the real world where they fall so differently that thermodynamics and gravity are hidden. History is not one all-important person [Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for example] saying “I will accomplish X”: it is countless millions upon millions of people trying to accomplish innumerable conflicting goals in opposition to each other (all while churches, nation states, guilds, secret societies, kingpriests, banks, and other strange cabals work on their own conflicting agendas).  In college I was excited to take cell biology and learn about the simple building blocks that life is made of…until the professor came in and wrote the Krebs cycle on the board as the first thing.  That was the first ten minutes! The rest of the class was learning how wrong the “simple” elegant metabolism cycle (below) can go when you start adding new chemicals.

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Simplicity is not real except as a concept. And it is a dangerous concept! The purpose of today’s post is not to teach you the Krebs cycle (as if I could) or to encompass all of history.  Instead we are pushing back at simplicity by striking at minimalism–the art form which espouses reductive simplicity.

Why am I attacking minimalism instead of other confidence tricks based around the illusion of simplicity? Art is the wellspring that ideas come from.  Concepts that bubble up in a font on Mount Parnassus are sanctified by the muses (or I guess these days by Jerry Saltz) and then trickle into other fields.  To start to make some headway in this worldwide morass we are in, we need to let go of some of these illusions about simple being better.  To start with that we need to go back to minimalism’s aesthetic roots in modern art.

The reason art is so germinal is because it is a place of illusions and magic.  The most fantastic imaginings can be real there.  Do you not like to walk?  You can paint everyone as flying! Are you sad that most of the creatures that ever existed have gone extinct? Just draw them as living together in Super Eden! Do you chafe at the Byzantine organic chemistry level complexity of, well, everything…just draw it as ridiculously simple! And artists have certainly simplified.  There are many artists who became influential just painting white canvases: Malevich, Martin, Baer, Albers, Ryman…the list goes on and on.

Arguably some of these works were made to express the same concepts I am expressing here.  Simplicity is not simple.  That infamous white canvas “Bridge” by Robert Ryman (1982, pictured below) has probably engendered more complex philosophical art essays than just about any artwork from the seventies/eighties.  Looking at a pure white canvas makes you realize that white can be warm or it can be cold. White can have a variety of textures and microdetails…to say nothing of the dense world of allusions it opens up.  Thinking about the nature of white begins to raise troubling questions about cognition, physics, and the psychology behind how we see things.

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But sadly these meanings have not translated well as Minimalism the art movement has flowed into minimalism the cultural phenomena (frankly I think the minimalism wing in the art museums might be a bit of a carnival trick too, to get people laughing and talking not to impress them with the sublime).

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The minimalist aesthetic has been a growing problem in America for decades.  Any New Yorker will instantly recognize the prestige look of the present moment—off-white walls, ugly blocky furniture made of blonde wood and neutral fabric, recess lighting, lots of glass & steel, monochromatic accents, and minimalist artwork.  To obtain the image at the top of this paragraph, I went to Google and image searched “beautiful apartment” and the results were hundreds of images of identical white rooms with what seems like the same furniture set.  It is like being trapped inside a display refrigerator at Sears (does that place still exist?).  Is this beautiful? Obviously not, but it is cheap and simple for developers to craft.

I feel like these rooms are like the GUI of a computer—they are seemingly simple, but they are really designed by vast corporate interests to sell things (and also there are vast worlds of complexity, disorder, and mess crammed into storage, just out of sight).  Minimalism look good on screens—it is simple enough to be comprehensible even in a thumbnail so you can sell it online (no need for photoshopping). Also minimalism is like a carnival barker’s trick or an infomercial pitch in another way too.  Its simplicity makes it easy to sell.

And here is where we get to the real heart of minimalism.  It is commercially successful. That Ryman painting a few paragraphs back sold in 2015 for $20.6 million!  We already know how well Kondo’s works about decluttering your life sell.  The “clean” diet kills people because it lacks sufficient nutrients for human beings, but people adhere to it with religious fervor even when MDs beg them not to.

Our world is so complicated and baffling that the allure of simplicity is an enticement beyond any other.  Yet it is salesman’s con job.  Don’t let people convince you that white paintings have a meaning that supersedes all other art or that empty rooms are best.  Simple solutions in politics tend to be impossible and dangerous. Simple diets will kill you.  I wish I had said my thesis more simply, rather than writing such a winding narrative to say such a straightforward thing.  Anything of beguiling simplicity is almost certainly a lie.

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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

Mermaid by Franz von Stuck

To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

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There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).

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Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

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Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.

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Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

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Here is an elegant paint color with an interesting historical backstory.  Charleston green is a shade of green so dark that it seems black.  Indeed, Wikipedia just straight-out lists it under black instead of green, so perhaps Charleston Green really is black.  The story goes that, after the American Civil War, mass quantities of black paint were provided by the Federal government for reconstruction.  The proud (albeit economically ruined) aesthetes of Charleston could not bear to paint their lovely vintage houses black–so they mixed in small quantities of yellow in order to create an exceedingly dark green.

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Whether this story is true or not, the color is very dramatic and pretty, although admittedly subtle.  In the modern post-post-Civil War period, Charleston Green seems to mostly be used for shutters, doors, and accents where it looks especially good against white, cream, bricks, or pale green.  Maybe it is not necessarily so much a response to northern aggression as a solid aesthetic choice. I feel like I’ve seen a whole house or two painted this color in my own neighborhood in New York, and weren’t the carpetbaggers supposed to have come from here?

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super-bowl-xlixDid anyone watch the Super Bowl broadcast yesterday? For readers who are living abroad, this is the championship contest of American football, a gladiator-style proxy war game (which doesn’t really involve the feet like soccer does–it could probably use a different name). Anyway, football is a high-profile national tribute to Ares. We pay the finest players princely sums, but they are human sacrifices who often get terribly injured and tend to live shortened lives. We are a warlike people. The big championship game is a national spectacle which everyone watches on TV while eating pizza, chili, pie, and suchlike caloric winter food. There are cameo appearances by celebrities, turgid political tributes, product placements, and many, many advertisements. There is much hollow pageantry.

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

I am just going to come out and say this. The look and feel of Super Bowl XLIX was bizarre. The advertisements were so overproduced that it was a challenge to figure out what most of them were selling until the end. There were confetti canons, pyrotechnics, washed-up athletes, and strange giant animal robot puppets operated by shadowy squadrons of ninja puppeteers. There were dancing sharks and sentient trees, and legions of cheerleaders in hotpants with faces painted into identical masks. There were the gladiators themselves, in plastic armor, numbered like cattle, with neon-colored jerseys festooned with the sponsors who own them. Above it all glistened the Lombardi trophy–a Brancusi sculpture re-imagined by an imbecile.

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

My roommate grew up in a sheltered artists’ community and then in boarding school and she had never seen the Super Bowl until yesterday. Afterwards, her eyes were wide and her mouth was agape. She said, “That was much, much weirder than I expected!” And she was right. vw-supertease-hed-2014 Please don’t mistake me. I like odd things, so the strangeness of Super Bowl doesn’t bother me. It was like a tacky contemporary version of a Piero di Cosimo painting. But it does surprise me that this is what stodgy Americans have collectively created. When I was growing up, it was a terrible to be “weird”. Reading books was weird. Having a pumpkin-colored sweater or a plain lunchbox was weird. Talking about literature or science was weird. Not loving Jesus Christ as your personal savior was the weirdest thing of all (not that anyone confessed to such a thing). Our nation despises weirdness. In red state middle America, children hunted out “weirdness” in other children like McCarthy on espresso and they dealt with any trace of difference like red ants dealing with a caterpillar in their tunnel. dd0087968f06a13f5f5f6b66e740bb94 So how did we end up with something like the Super Bowl? The puritan mold marks still show on most American institutions. We are center right in most ways that matter. Yet for our big game we somehow end up with a spectacle that would make the wildest Luperci or the most debauched opium eater scratch their head in dazed wonder.

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can't find one without the pop star too...

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can’t find one without the pop star too…

Maybe the strangeness of the Super Bowl was incremental: one year we added the hydrocephalic trophy; the next year someone invented glitter canons; the eighties happened; Prince played the halftime show. Suddenly a football game had morphed into a very abstract phenomena. bacteria1 Or maybe the game reflects the jostling of many different competing corporate interests—just like different colonies of bacteria make weird fractal patterns in a petri dish as they try to efficiently grab all of the resources. Could it be that human celebrations naturally tend to be baroque and eclectic so that everyone is included? Or perhaps, despite our briefcases, stodgy business casual clothes, and Cato-style Republican congress, we Americans are really weirdos.

Cato keeps showing up here too...

Cato keeps showing up here too…

Or it is also possible that the Superbowl was exactly like middle school, right down to the meaningless football game, the pageant with dancing trees, and the bright colors plastered over institutional sameness?  We are only pretending it was weird so that people will be able to talk about something…and so that people who write on the internet can get you to click their little articles.

Hey! Dangit...

Hey! Dangit…

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So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter.  It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy).  In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength!  The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world).  As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.

From Dover's "Thai Decorative Designs" Coloring Book amazing

From Dover’s “Thai Decorative Designs” Coloring Book amazing

I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me).  Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects.  It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.

The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring).  However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child.  First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master.  I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored.  As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…

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Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all.  You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.

Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures.  Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines.  Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome.   Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated.  So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing.  Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait!  Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better.  Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks).    Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!

Takashi Murakami 7

Takashi Murakami 7

And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space).  The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive!  It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things!  Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great!  Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!

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Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?

"Old Rose"

“Old Rose”

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

One of the greatest still life painters of all time was Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin spent almost his entire life in Paris creating still life paintings of common kitchen and household items (and occasionally painting domestic scenes of maids, servants, and children). In an age dominated by Rococo excess and opulence, his works exalt the simple beauty of quotidian subjects. Additionally, he painted very slowly and turned out only 4 or 5 pieces a year. Chardin is one of Marcel Proust’s favorite artists and anyone who has read “Remembrance of Things Past” will recall long lyrical passages praising paintings such as “The Ray” (one of the Louvre’s prized masterpiece–which Proust saw often). Proust found a kindred spirit in Chardin—someone who found transcendent beauty, grandeur, and meaning within daily life. Chardin’s exquisite little works make a large aesthetic point about the nature of beauty and of truth—which are as often found in the servant’s little room as in the viscount’s vasty palace. A little hanging duck is as lovely as the goddess of the dawn.

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

I have chosen to show three paintings of fowl by Chardin (ranging from least, at the top, to best at the bottom). All are kitchen paintings of dead birds about to be plucked and cooked. The first is a simple brace of gamefowl hanging in the kitchen. The second work shows a splendid duck with one cream colored wing extended, the last is a magnificent turkey amidst copper pots and vegetables. Each of these paintings have a deep sense of longing: the melancholy of the dead birds is somewhat abated by the viewer’s hunger and by the wistful nostalgia created by a limited palette of grays and browns (with a few little flourishes of pink, orange, and yellow). Their very simplicity makes them rich and complex (although Chardin’s incomparable brushwork certainly is anything but simple).

 

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

The nymphs, clowns, and jeweled mistresses of 18th century French art seem to come from a world unimaginable—a world which even today’s jaded pop stars and sybaritic billionaires would find decadent. Chardin’s art however comes from some eternal place—a kitchen which we have all walked into in childhood. There in the plain light we are confronted with humble pots and pans and perhaps a bird or fish—but we are also confronted with the absolute beauty of the everyday world.

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