Depictions of objects throughout art history are evidence that at times a seemingly mundane subject matter can offer the most intriguing interpretation. The ancient Egyptians decorated the insides of their tombs with paintings of everyday items. Objects have been used by artists to explore various themes, including life, death and religion. It was at the beginning of the 20th century that a shift in the status of an object as subject matter to a work of art in its own right began. With movements such as Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, new perceptions and interpretations of objects resulted in a change of what was considered to be ‘art’. It revolutionised creative practices.
In this blog we look at 3 gallery artists who pay homage to the object-based traditions of history with their own work, whilst pushing the boundary of what is expected.
Magnus Gjoen combines genres to create an uncomfortable juxtaposition of beauty and horror, challenging preconceived notions of the meaning of an object. Inspired by Pop Art, which was famous for challenging Fine Art when it used imagery from popular culture (like mass-produced cultural objects – think Andy Warhol and his canned soup). Removing these objects from their known context and combining them with unrelated material. Magnus chooses objects that are far from mundane; bombs, guns, skulls and knuckledusters to name a few. He then uses collage to incorporate a theme onto the objects; be that a scene from an Old Masters painting, a flower, or a Delft porcelain design. The finished results are charming, but can also be seen as violent, such as we see in his work A Beautiful Thing Is Never Perfect.
In this artwork, Magnus has taken an Uzi machine gun and patterned it with the 1714 oil painting by Jane Weenix, Hunting and Fruit Still Life Next To A Garden Vase….’. Weenix was best known for extravagant trophy pictures and created compositions which not only included hunted and killed animals, but the equipment that was used. Often set in grand parks, the paintings depict dead animals and a lack of humanity, giving them a mournful air. This painting is evidence of Pronkstilleven or ‘ostentatious’ still life, a popular form of still life at the time that was used to convey a moral message.
Symbolism in the work, such as the monkey representing sin and mischief, and dead birds representing Voluptas Carnis (the sin in which humanity has existed since the fall of man because of Eve’s disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit), would have been easily understood by contemporary audiences. Incorporating these elements into his work and contrasting it with a gun, Magnus plays on the idea that just because something is beautiful it does not mean it is necessarily good, and just because something is destructive does not mean it can’t be beautiful. He is utilising the haunting beauty of Weenix’s work to explore the relationship between beauty and destruction, life and death, and ultimately how we perceive an object.
“Since antiquity the colour blue has been associated with wisdom, moral philosophy and truth. An instrument of revelation and a gateway to the soul: the sixth and common sense. We remark on its physical presence. Yet what does the word blue mean? When asked such a question, our seeing eye can point towards things that have this colour, are this colour. But that’s all we can do. Our ability to explain the meaning of the word blue can go no further. Blueness is positively what it is. Absolute” – Harriet Abbott.
The art critic and historian Tony Godfrey argues that “objects cannot just be objects in our society: we overload them instinctively with meanings and significance”. This idea is important to keep in mind when looking at the work of Harriet Abbott who questions the use of language and its relation to objects. Arguing that language is perceived to be so important but is actually limited and by using it to describe objects we are not only restricting our experience but also trapping the object within human comprehension, as opposed to allowing the object to have agency.
Harriet’s blue wax sculptures of classical vases are an attempt to disrupt this. Casting them many times, something she says makes the individual object redundant and also changes the discussion around the object. In ‘Since Antiquity’, every aspect of the artwork is challenging preexisting beliefs of what a classical vase is. Yes, it may look like a classical vase, but it is actually far from it. It is made of wax, which changes the purpose from function to aesthetic; it is International Klein Blue, a bright blue shade which Yves Klein used to represent the immaterial and immeasurable in his works. And it was cast many times over. All of these things knock it from the prestigious, one of a kind, an antique pedestal that classical vases occupy. Even though the viewer may appear to recognise the object within the work, there is no commonality. Harriet challenges the viewer’s preconceptions and encourages the agency of the object without the restriction of human comprehension.
Isobel Cortese’s work focuses on dioramas created in terrariums. Miniature worlds protected from the outside worlds that tend to be whimsical. Think snow-globes filled with tiny city. Being granted access to these seemingly perfect, picturesque scenes is incredibly appealing to the viewer and as a result snow globes have come to symbolise innocence and happiness, such as in the iconic opening scene of Citizen Kane, when the snow globe slips through Charles Kane’s finger and smashes, signifying the loss of his innocence and the end of his childhood.
Isobel subverts the traditional meaning of these miniature dream landscapes within objects by creating scenes of horror; one that the view certainly wouldn’t want to be a part of. In her series Beastly Imaginarium, Isobel reverses the roles of humans and animals, giving the animals humans bodies, clothing and most disturbingly, characteristics. In ‘Roll Up, Roll Up!’, two standing figures adorned with tiger heads nonchalantly chat to each other. They are relaxed, paying no heed to the female locked in the circus cart behind. She is dressed in a bright red and gold bikini and wears a gold headdress. A green snake wraps around her body. Rather than create an enticing scene which the viewer wants to enter, Isobel presents a claustrophobic horror show. The series, inspired by taxidermy, explores themes of animal cruelty. Taking a traditionally sweet kitsch object, combined with this shocking role reversal, sparks wider conversations on how animals continue to be treated.
The mundanity of the object is a great asset to an artist. They can challenge and subvert their viewer’s expectations. It’s not just a gun, it’s not just a vase and it’s definitely not just a snow globe. If you want to have a closer look, make sure to visit the gallery so you can see for yourself.
As always, thanks for reading!