Spotlight on Narrative Art: Don’t Still Life, Stir Life

In addition to “jumbo shrimp,” “clearly confused,” and “controlled chaos,” there is another incongruous couplet that should be added to the list frequently used oxymorons: “still life.”

This paradoxical pairing of “still” and “life” – combined to signal the genre of painting commonly associated with strategically arranged fruit and shiny vases – is the odd couple that has ended up side-by-side for centuries. 

The first flaw of the phrase is that it suggests a level of stillness, that simply cannot sustain life.

But the fatal flaw of the phrase is that it betrays its own genre. That is to say, to suggest that what a painting, or artwork of any medium, does is still life, would be an error of unbelievable magnitude. The opposite is true: artwork stirs life.

“The Vignette Collection” is a collection of artworks that are the opposite of stillness. They are each a narrative that tells a story and stirs life through their imagination, impact, and mystery. Though a painting a single frame, time is the hidden subject. For example, in Dimitris Angelopoulos' Weary Mother time is in the figure's wrinkles, in the blurred brushstrokes, and worried gaze.

Narrative art has a unique relationship to time that is different from other forms of narrative such as film and literature. The remarkable talent of visual artwork is its ability to limit the temporal quality. It conveys time in very little time. A single piece can have the bandwidth of a simple sentence but the richness of a novel.

Forgotten Umbrella  (20" x 24")   by Stanislav Sidorov, oil painting

Forgotten Umbrella (20" x 24") by Stanislav Sidorov, oil painting

Where other forms of narrative require time from digesting each word, flipping pages, or watching a series of images, a photograph, sculpture, or painting has an instantaneity – its story unfolds in a glance as the eye scans the clues that convey the story.

These clues can be as subtle as a no-longer-needed umbrella, the words in the title, or a dreamlike haze in the brushstrokes. But they all remind the viewer that every inch and aspect of the composition was thought over by the artists and give a hint to the underlying story.

Our Table  (40" x 40") by Nava Lundy, acrylic painting 

Our Table (40" x 40") by Nava Lundy, acrylic painting 

Nava Lundy’s poetic and poignant painting, Our Table resounds with its own story, that can blur into every story. The ambiguity of borders that recreate the look of a memory. Every aspect – the style, the title, the composition - a small parable from which stories stem.

Nava taps into the richness of “our.” It is a word that is at once intimate and distant. The pronoun invokes associations and personal connotations. These details and lack of details are specific enough to draw out a narrative but vague enough in which the viewer can fill in his or her own “our.” That rests perfectly in position between vague and specific.

If Our Table hinges on a haziness, then another painting from the Vignette Collection, Crossing Union and Powell for Sushi, San Francisco hinges on a specificity. It tells its own story with an emphatic exactness. By placing the painting’s pedestrian protagonist in a specific and location, Seth Couture tells a story through his use of details.

The title – under the active direction of the gerund’s “en media res” gripthe specific city, intersection, and even appetite are all the details that the viewer can envision. 

Niña  (51.8" x 76.77) by Elena Bonny Marquez, mixed media artwork 

Niña (51.8" x 76.77) by Elena Bonny Marquez, mixed media artwork 

The stories that fill The Vignette Collection all differ and unfold in their own arc. The stories, all together, become a reminder that, stirring around – in a wedding toast, in conversations at café, in the crosswalk walker, in our own minds, or in a glance of a stranger– there is still life.