Thursday, October 4, 2012
by CHARLES DONELAN
SITTING DUCKS: It’s tempting to say that, in the 21st century, at least, the still life gets no respect. We pass by these “little pictures of bowls of fruit” with hardly a thought, bustling off toward all the bigger things that clamor for our attention. And that’s why the subtitle of Martha Mayer Erlebacher’s current show, which is on view at Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery (7 E. Anapamu St.), generates a subtle sense of unease. Martha Mayer Erlebacher and the American Still Life — which sounds more like the title of a PhD thesis than an art exhibit — contains fewer than two dozen pictures, all of them painted within the last decade. How can this perfectly polite-seeming show presume to say something about the whole of “the American Still Life?”
Yet Erlebacher, one of the greatest living American realists, keeps that promise and goes on to deliver even more. Under the sustained focus of an alert viewer, these images virtually combust with intelligence, passion, wit, and an overwhelming sense of the still life’s traditional subject, which is nothing less than universal mortality. Begin with even the friendliest, most innocent-looking of the pictures, like “California Still Life” (2010). A bowl of apples holds some leaves to lend the composition verticality, while a few loose grape tomatoes and a spare pear litter the adjacent tabletop. But look more closely at the dark jug on the right and something uncanny appears reflected in its surface. A window in the background, its pale light and refracted image rendered with exquisite, painstaking skill — that’s there for sure, but is that a duck in the foreground of the reflection? How did it get there? And what does it mean? For Erlebacher aficionados, or anyone who happened to see her 2008 exhibit called Avant Duck, also at Sullivan Goss, the symbolism of this ghostly presence will be apparent. Like the anamorphic memento mori employed by the great still life painters of the 17th century, Erlebacher’s duck hovers in the margins of her work, peeking out from within reflections and slipping almost unnoticed into the viewer’s consciousness, its whispering voice saying something dark and final … like, “quack.”
Along the front wall of the gallery facing the street, there’s a series called “Trompe, Trompe.” These stark compositions depict clusters of grapes hanging from nails against a mostly white wall. The double “trompe” refers to the layers of illusion present in these images. At one level, the paintings are full of virtuosic passages of trompe l’oeil — nails that appear to project from the surface of the canvas, pencil marks and smudges of photographic specificity, cracks and blemishes that appear absolutely real. And on another level, each of these images doubles this illusion by employing deceptive models. Some of these bunches of grapes are made of plastic, others of alabaster, still others of wood. Erlebacher clearly takes great pleasure in the way that this fake fruit, smuggled into the still life under the cover of her tremendous gift for representational art, takes center stage only to make a light mockery of nature. One leaves this show with the feeling that few artists today are so in touch with the dark side of things, or as capable of reaching into the void of creation and pulling out the stuff of life. If it looks like a grape, and quacks like a duck, what the hell is it? Martha Mayer Erlebacher and the American Still Life is on display through Sunday, December 2.