With a line two blocks long that rivaled a Supreme drop, the opening of The Hole’s latest exhibition, “Nature Morte,” seemed to prove how ready we are to resume our pre-pandemic activities. That this enthusiasm was directed at The Hole’s annual group show comes with little surprise. Bringing together 62 artists, the colossal exhibition explores the French pictorial genre of nature morte or still life, with an environmental twist. Challenging the viewer to reflect on the fragility of nature and the very real repercussions of the climate crisis, the exhibition is full of ironic and humorous interpretations of environmentalism and refreshing commentaries on the global issue.
Upon entering the exhibition, you are immediately confronted by a bright pink dolphin diving into a mirror with its tail projecting out into the room. Made by artist Adam Parker Smith to look like a mylar balloon á la Jeff Koons, the stainless steel dolphin far surpasses Koons in meaning and entertainment value. From an environmental standpoint, the connection between a balloon and an animal is clear. Mylar is not a biodegradable material; what comes up must go down, and often for balloons that means in the ocean. Adding a humorous twist, Smith’s dolphin is titled “Narcissist Pink,” leaving doubt as to who the narcissist is. Am I the narcissist for taking photos of myself with the dolphin, or is the pink animal with its nose stuck against the mirror? Whether narcissistic or representative of an existential crisis, the dolphin/mirror combo is a perfect host for dead nature.
The theme of the show evolved as a response to what Kathy Grayson, owner of The Hole, saw as an unexpected common thread among young artists. She explained, “Normally when we curate a group show we go to art fairs all over the world and take the time to see MFA shows and group shows at small galleries, but this whole past year the show was researched online. I always keep notes of things that stand out as exciting, and a lot of what I was seeing was dark still life paintings, which I found to be funny. I wouldn’t have thought that still life is an urgent area of exploration in 2021, but it is. What surprised me was that these paintings were not exactly morbid, but definitely had a dark side. I like the fact that through the ages still life painting has reflected a lot of cultural changes and phenomena and registered a lot of historical shifts, so I felt like what was going on with still life paintings now presented a good opportunity to see what was happening with the natural world.”
The interpretations of the still life genre and environmentalist theme vary. Behind Smith’s dolphin and continuing throughout much of the exhibition, The Hole has installed an eerie, foggy forest wallpaper as a nice reminder of the theme. Grayson explained that this atmospheric element was an important part of the exhibition design to help tie together the diverse range of works.
Installed near Smith’s pink dolphin gatekeeper is a colorful work on paper by New York-based Canadian artist Aurel Schmidt. Known to challenge the boundaries between ugliness and beauty, Schmidt’s works often include images of detritus, death, fear, and pain rendered in cheerful colors and delicate lines. She sometimes adds actual pieces of trash, drugs, human hair, and even blood. Her work in “Nature Morte,” called “Oh My Gods,” is an intricate, rainbow bouquet of flowers so detailed it’s easy to overlook the flies, rats, copulating frogs, cigarette butts, and snake weaving through the flora. More apparent is the skull ripped into two pieces and sitting at the base of the bouquet. A reinvention of the object often seen in still life paintings, Schmidt has amped up the morte with the inclusion of flies and a cockroach and added a contemporary twist with the rainbow wig neatly pinned back with a hair clip. Across from the top half of the skull is the bottom jaw that sits next to a rainbow flower crown. Coachella gone wrong, the beautiful mess reveals sinister decay underneath.
Grayson described the work as “a good redemption story.” The story, which began 10 years ago, is one that Schmidt has been open about. Grayson explained that the work was originally shown at a different New York gallery and immediately flipped. “Eventually it ended up at an auction so we were able to buy it back for Aurel and she was able to work on it again. The skull was once a giant alien head. The only thing that’s really the same is the bulk of the flowers. In the end, the piece traverses major moments and the evolution of her career.”
A personal favorite in “Nature Morte” was a series that at first seemed the least connected to the theme, but may actually be the aptest for the time. Lydia Blakeley’s “Is This Internet Art? Symposium 1, 2, 3, and 4” depict a stunned, white cat-like animal sitting on a box with its hands in an apparent gesture of shock or frustration. The series focuses on the figure from different angles, including a much-appreciated closeup profile of its face. Seemingly innocuous as a white cat-ish animal might be, the creature in question is actually the stuffed toy that became known as the Persian Room Cat Guardian of the viral meme. Grayson explained that she was drawn to the series because of the absurdity of the poorly represented animal, which she called a taxidermied lemur. Whether the animal is a lemur, a cat, or a monkey is unclear, as elements of all the animals appear, adding to the ridiculousness of the paintings.
What better way to depict nature in 2021 than a meme turned into fine art. The last year has been lived almost entirely online, so a meme would naturally be part of the fauna of the current world. While Blakeley began painting the exasperated cat/monkey/lemur years before the Covid-era as a humorous nod to our digital experiences, the image takes on an added sense of irony with its familiarity in today’s world where our digital experiences have become some of our only experiences.
The titles of Blakeley’s paintings, “Is This Internet Art? Symposium 1, 2, 3, and 4,” add a self-conscious twist to the series. Flipping the current popularity of NFTs and the trend of digitizing physical artwork into images to be consumed solely over the internet, Blakeley removes the internet-based icon from its digital world and brings it to the physical space of the gallery. Further complicating the story is the fact that we are still in the era of Covid-19. Travel and in-person activities are still limited and, for those not able to see the work in person, a digital image will have to suffice. Even the exhibition was curated virtually for the most part. Thus the internet art turned physical art goes back onto the internet once again, a true marker of the death of the natural and physical worlds.
More directly in line with the environmental theme of the exhibition is Aaron Elvis Jupin’s painting of a battered butterfly in a desperate, burning landscape. Called “Not Helping,” the work relates to the artist’s interest in the relationship between people and nature. The butterfly’s perforated wings would make it impossible to fly. The crisp, clean colors of the insect contrast with the hazy, glowing forest in the background. The title presumably addressed at mankind in general, is both an affirmation and an exasperation. Humans not helping is both a fact and a shame.
Next to “Not Helping” hangs Lucia Love’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with a green, tubular bridge in front of a burning hill. On top of the bridge are two golden-yellow ants propping up a round, sparkling ball of verdant flowers. The little Sisyphuses appear trapped with nowhere to go but back into the ominously red water below. Grayson was drawn to the works in the show because of the refreshing way they approached the environmental theme. She explained, “I had seen institutional and commercial shows try to address climate change, and they’re often focused on obvious things like landscape paintings, which is great, but I was excited to see if there was a different angle you could approach it from and a more oblique way to incorporate those feelings. With the rise in still-life paintings we were seeing, everything was sort of dead and inedible. The style of painting is very un-lifelike, which I really liked and knew was worth exploring as a new genre of still life.”
One of the more fantastical interpretations of the still life genre, Matthew Hansel’s “Those Who Never Set Their Table Never Dine Alone” is a wild, surrealist feast that tetters between nightmare and Bacchanalia. Made specifically for the exhibition, the painting features a beautiful woman in a beaded gown holding court at a table packed with an odd assortment of food. She holds a glass containing a miniature, upside-down, naked man and is watched by creepy, devilish creatures including a spitting owl and a plant with a giant, Cheshire cat smile and ping pong-like eyes. The scene is simultaneously unsettling and amazing. Like the creatures staring at the beautiful, unapologetically sinister woman, it’s hard to look away.
“He’s an interesting guy.” Grayson said of Hansel. “His day-job is painting reproductions for film and TV. He can paint any art historical time period, he’s always made these virtuosic hybrid art historical works. This new series is like Hieronymus Bosch meets 1970s glamor magazine. We felt like it was perfect for the show with the traditional Dutch Master elements like the peeled lemon that’s paired with the disgusting food like the jello filled with hot dogs and the Ritz crackers and retro-looking gouda. It has a real medieval landscape vibe that’s an exciting contribution and a good nod to this idea of a kitchen abundance.”
Abundance is perhaps the best word to describe “Nature Morte.” There is an abundance of artists, an abundance of styles, and an abundance of approaches to the still life genre and the issues of climate change. The exhibition is rich and diverse, tiptoeing around the themes in creative and exciting ways. Far from the landscape paintings and melting ice caps, the works in the show approach an absurd, dystopian future and make it feel all too real.
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Writer, Cultbytes Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer and art advisor. As a writer, she focuses on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, and Artillery Magazine among others. Keenan has worked in several major museums and galleries worldwide, including the Broad Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Keenan specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. l igram l email l