Artist of the Week: Carl Grauer, Vanitas 2.0

Vanitas  by Harmen Steenwijck, ca 1640

Vanitas by Harmen Steenwijck, ca 1640

There once was a time when you could find everything you needed to paint a Vanitas still life in the prop closet of a Hamlet production: candles, drapery, goblets, daggers, and, of course, a skull. With but a few macabre objects, artist could join the crusade of the Vanitas genre and tie a ribbon around the bony finger of mortality.

The genre strutted and fretted in the 16th and 17th centuries. Like peascod bellies and the medical validity of Humourism, the traditional Vanitas genre was buried centuries ago and now is only exhumed to indulge esoteric and effete curiosity.

Though its message has its merits, the memento mori sampler platter does not pack the same plaguing punch it did 300 years ago. A motionless skull is not all that shocking to horror film-saturated, Halloween observing audience. However, Carl Grauer reincarnates the Vanitas genre for a modern-day audience through his still life paintings.

Forgoing the chiaroscuro and craniums of yore, Carl’s selection of still lifes has none of the dour trappings of traditional Vanitas. His paintings are not hyper-realistic, dark, and dramatic; they are stylized, pastel, and minimalistic. They instead wear rose-colored glasses.

His “Lost & Found” series is particularly sanguine. The three small-scale paintings are placed on bubblegum pink backgrounds that look as if they have been dusted with powdered sugar. While a 16th century artist would have found a shadow’s potential for dramatics irresistible, Carl uses shadowing to delight. Each object spills into the second dimension as a colorful and whimsical projection. 

The two paintings that uphold the most compositional traditions of the still life genre are Still Life with Grandma’s Teapot and Still Life With Phone. They both portray four objects on a table. However, despite this clear allusion their settings – a rosy wall and sunny window – give the paintings an upbeat mood.

Still Life With Phone further flouts bygone conventions with humor. Candles were once the tell-tale heart of the Vanitas genre. In Macbeth, Macbeth uttered “Out, out, brief candle!” to lament the futility of life; and, a waxy metaphor was born. However, here candles are blatantly omitted. Carl paints two candlesticks and, yet, zero candles. In Lost & Found Lightbulb, he even paints the artificial light source that deposed the candle into near obsolescence. This refusal to indulge its candle-obsessed ancestors suggests a recognition of an evolved value system.

The 21st century has a new set of symbolic objects. Across all art forms, technology is negotiating its place. There is no model or historical helping hand; artists are exploring the new terrain. Carl places technology directly into his still lifes. This suggests that contemporary culture has instilled enough power into objects such as cell phones, headphones, and lightbulbs, that they are modern memento mori.

These days, nothing says Ubi Sunt quite like a dying cellphone battery. In Still Life with Phone, Carl places a charging iPhone as the central focus on the Demilune table. The white power cord emphasizes the phone’s lifecycle and “mortality,” and by extension, the viewer’s own. The headphones in Lost & Found Headphones remind the viewer that nothing is forever. They are coiled neatly in an unopened package, unaware of the Gordian knot they are doomed to become.

Carl’s Lemon Ottolenghi Cake is allegorical, evoking the tragic hero of the early 2000’s: the gourmet cupcake. Before crashing from the national sugar-high, the gourmet cupcake industry had an incredible boom. There were shops devoted exclusively to the diminutive dessert. The cupcake is our latter-day Icarus with icing. Carl tantalizes with a single cupcake. It’s ruffled sleeve, globby frosting, and a trio of blueberries remind us that nothing is forever.

See Carl's full portfolio on UGallery.

Additionally, Carl offers commissioned portraits from life in the New York metropolitan area, usually formatted as a two-hour experience with the sitter. Interested clients can inquire about portrait commissions by clicking to request custom art on Carl’s portfolio page.