The still life genre has a rich history, one of the richest in all of art history. At its simplest, the still life is a collection of objects, but it is this very restriction that has obliged artists to imbue the genre with imagination and invention to achieve true originality and diversity of expression.
This situation is an art historian's, and indeed a curator's, dream for it allows for a demonstration of one art history's most important facets -- that it is not what the work of art represents that is always most important, but rather equally how the artist interprets the subject matter through vision, syntax, and formal structure.
Since its appearance as an autonomous genre in the early 17th century, the still life has been a highly coded art form: The objects chosen and their manner of organization represent social and economic value systems that may not be immediately visible to the untrained eye. This is also true in still lives of the 20th century, although the value systems are not necessarily the same.
While many of the conventions of earlier still life practice have been modified or transformed in the 20th century, the questions one might ask in analyzing the modern still life have not fundamentally changed. In the first place, how and why an artist selects a given subject? Are these choices a reflection of personal preference, of their immediate environment, or are they inspired by more general or collective visions such as that of poetic transgression, or of the signs and symbols of modern life?
Composition is also a code unto itself. Why does an artist choose to articulate a composition in one way as opposed to another: In a fragmented space, flat and filling the frame, or through infinite repetition of the same object? The manner of assembling objects from similar or separate contexts, their relations to each other and to a spatial framework, will undergo all manner of manipulations as we move through the 21st century. Do these changes correspond to the formal and metaphysical breakthroughs witnessed throughout the art of the twentieth century or do they derive from a personal culture, a personal vision?
Since the objective of most of these artists is to challenge, even to transgress accepted conventions in order to forge a personal expressive idiom, the modern still life includes a broad diversity of compositional devices.
The depth of history that now comprises and informs our notion of the still life is clearly immense, and when I had the chance to meet Ilya Gaponov, I realized that I had found an artist able to embody my vision for an exhibition of "contemporary still life". I was immediately drawn to Gaponov's work because of its "modernist" subject matter and again because of its unusual formal syntax. His radically flat patterning and somber palette seem somewhat at odds with the overlapping and interlacing of motifs that characterize the artist's own beliefs and "Russian-ness". I was struck by its rigorously gridded structure, and by how the motifs, translated into emblematic ciphers, are vertically stacked and integrated into a rhythmic allover surface arrangement that fills the frame.
Gaponov's twinned and tangled objects and animals are bizarrely situated and often difficult to identify and push the notion of still life painting to its extreme limits. Although Gaponov's subjects are immaculately rendered, their organization is consistently incongruous. I was intrigued by their enigmatic poetry.
The paintings in Undiscerning Appetites are inspired by the memento mori style of still life and 17th century Dutch still lives, emphasising the brevity of all earthly delights. The artist has adopted as the main plot for his new exhibition a passage from the Book of Revelation (2:18 - 2:29), in which God sends a message to the church at Thyatire. The passage speaks of the wife of King Ahab, Jezebel, whose name is associated with many things including the Apocalypse, heresy, and depravity. Jezebel is important to the artist as a symbol of contemporary society. Gaponov's work, like this passage from the Bible, is an attempt to capture the pre- apocalyptic condition of our own world.
Using Kuzbass varnish (bitumen) to render contemporary objects in total contrast with traditional memento mori images and the warm domestic interiors of 17th century Dutch still-lives with their display of precious, rare, and often hand-crafted luxuries, Gaponov's paintings depict symbolically coded messages warning against indulgence and uncontrolled consumption of food and goods. Although the paintings in Undiscerning Appetites are more dramatic than traditional 17th century memento mori images, the final message remains the same: Life is short and can end at any moment. Like Dutch still-lives, these paintings also warn viewers to be careful of what they consume. Gaponov's allusions to the tradition of the memento mori reveal both the depth of his immersion in the history of the still life genre and the ways in which he breaks from this history, creating new forms and adopting new subjects appropriate to his own distinctive cultural background.
Gaponov's art highlights the fact that we have deeply complicated relationships with the world of objects either of secular or religious nature. His still life paintings present an invitation to think about these relationships, how they are formed and what they might tell us about our moment in history -- truly contemporary still lives in the very best of the great tradition.