Visual Arts » 2D

There’s Still Life in Those Bones

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You’ve seen a million still lifes before: There’s usually a random assortment of fruit, vases, books, pewter wine goblets and splayed-out pheasants.

Maybe there’s a lobster or a human skull. Sometimes a globe or a violin.

Any old array of food or flowers on a table could really be painted anywhere. The genre has been one of the most common in painting over the centuries, but there’s little that ties a bowl of pears to a time or a place.

Deer Horns,  - 1938. Oil on canvas, Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. -  - IMAGE COURTESY INTERNATIONAL ARTS®
  • Image courtesy International Arts®
  • Deer Horns, 1938. Oil on canvas, Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Most still life paintings had no real sense of place until Georgia O’Keeffe and other Southwestern painters turned to the desert landscape and Southwestern culture for inspiration, according to Harriet Warkel, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s guest curator for American Art. A total of 66 of their paintings, including 24 by the Modernist master, are featured in Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life, a touring exhibit that makes its only stop east of the Mississippi River at the IMA on Nov. 2. The work will be on display through Feb. 15, 2015.

The exhibit focuses on how O’Keeffe and other area artists made objects symbolic of the Southwest and its Native American and Hispanic cultures, Warkel says. O’Keeffe wasn’t just painting an adobe home’s door or sun-bleached animal bones. She was trying to capture the spirit of a desolate sagebrush-blanketed region known for its striking natural beauty and dramatic vistas.

“Bones had no connotations of death in her work; she always felt the bones were symbols of the Southwest,” Warkel explains. “She appreciated the form. There was no negativity. She said the bones were more alive than the animals that walked the area. Bones suggest the transience of life, but also eternity. We still find the bones of Neanderthal men. Instead of being dead, she thought of them as existing longer than everything.”

O’Keefe gathered horse heads, mule skulls and the deer horns that littered New Mexico’s arid landscape, but she was particularly drawn to the form of animals’ pelvic bones, and painted them from a perspective that framed the vast Southwestern sky through the circular hole. Over time, she tightened the frame on the hole of sky more and more. She painted such inanimate objects the way previous artists rendered oranges or wine glasses, but her work was pioneering in the still life genre, because it instantly evokes a specific geographical place that is immediately recognizable.

“The still lifes actually show a sense of place, that this was painted somewhere, that it was from the Southwest,” Warkel says. “The objects artists in this exhibit show offer a look into how the people there lived. They use different types of modernist imagery to show scenes and describe the culture.”

Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia,  - 1936. Oil on canvas, from  the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Copyright - 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  - IMAGE COURTESY INTERNATIONAL ARTS®
  • Image courtesy International Arts®
  • Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia, 1936. Oil on canvas, from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Memphis-based museum service firm International Arts organized the exhibition around the idea that still lifes largely did not say anything about place until O’Keeffe and other artists started settling in New Mexico in the early 20th century. This exhibit will also travel to museums in Colorado, Texas and Washington state.

“This exhibition brings much needed attention to the painted interpretations of the American Southwest by O’Keeffe and her contemporaries,” says former Smithsonian American Art Museum Director Dr. Charles Eldredge, who wrote a 160-page book to accompany the exhibit. “It explores the ways these artists took simple, seemingly mute objects and with them conveyed natural and human dramas that described a distinctive locale and its rich cultural history.”

People might be surprised to see some of the cultural imagery O’Keeffe painted, such as an Indian pot and a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, Warkel points out. Her work is rich with cultural signifiers, including that the flowers she was famous for painting were often modeled on the intricate fabric calico flowers that Hispanic craftsmen weaved for mourners, because real flowers wilted too fast when left at cemeteries in the dry heat.

“It’s a really interesting, really different look at the still life that hadn’t been done before,” Warkel says.

The IMA hopes to transport visitors to the desert of northern New Mexico O’Keeffe depicted in much of her art. Literally. Right before the end of the exhibit, museum goers walk into a room with wall-size photos of the views O’Keeffe could see from her windows, complete with all the mountains and the trees. Visitors are meant to feel as though they’re standing at her easel, soaking it all in.

Yellow Cactus,  - 1929. Oil on canvas from Dallas Museum of Art, Texas.     Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. - COURTESY INTERNATIONAL ARTS®
  • courtesy International Arts®
  • Yellow Cactus, 1929. Oil on canvas from Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Warkel also hopes visitors will leave inspired enough to travel to the Southwest and see firsthand the landscapes O’Keeffe painted. She was an exterior painter who wasn’t confined to a studio, so it’s possible to still view many of the sights she represented in her work, including the black door of her Abiquiu winter house that she painted from several different angles.

“Today, you can still look at what Georgia O’Keeffe saw,” Warkel says.

And thanks to this exhibit, you can also see how she interpreted such views.


If you want to be among the first art lovers to see the exhibit, the museum is hosting a special opening event Saturday, Nov. 1 from 7 to 11 p.m. Visitors can see the art, listen to music courtesy of deejay Kyle Long, and enjoy hands-on art activities inspired by Dia de Los Muertos traditions. Tickets and more details are available online ($12 for non-members, $5 for students, free for members).

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