Art exhibition makes U.S. debut at UNC Charlotte
There’s a new exhibition at UNC Charlotte's Rowe Galleries that’s making its U.S. debut after showings in London and Poland. It’s based on artist Michael Petry’s book, “Nature Morte,” which explores still-life art in a contemporary fashion.
Nature morte directly translates to dead nature, and Petry explains that the tradition of still life goes back to ancient times and became popularized in the 17th century with different areas including flora (plants), fauna (animals), domestic objects, food and vanitas. Petry’s exhibition features more than 100 pieces from international and regional artists.
Petry says that though people may not know it, still-life art — whether it be flowers, a bowl of fruit or food — has always dealt with themes of death and the impermanence of life. (Yes, those flowers, that bowl of fruit or food — they will wilt and rot and die. They are on borrowed time, so to speak.)
The still-life category of vanitas deals with themes of death more directly, with imagery of skulls and the like.
The "Nature Morte" exhibit at UNC Charlotte, was developed by Petry and Roberto Ekholm at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in London, and features traditional media such as painting and sculpture — but also explores the intersection of art and technology with several digital displays. It opened Sept. 21 and runs through Nov. 3 at UNC Charlotte's Rowe Galleries, open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with author, curator and creator Michael Petry, a U.S.-born London-based artist.
What to expect
Petry: I think it’s a very accessible exhibition of very cutting-edge work. I think anyone who comes will have a visual feast because so many of the works are absolutely wonderful just to look at. But also when they read about them, they will have another layer of pleasure because a lot of them are incredibly amusing, and the background to them is so wonderful.
Petry: I think for a lot of people it’s going to be a wonderful surprise to come down and see all of these different works across traditional paintings oil on canvas, sculptures, but you go from that all the way to the digital.
We have a digital work by Guillaume Paris which is being generated live in real-time. A computer is creating it in real-time so it’s always different, it’s never the same. It’s Pinocchio inside the stomach of a whale, so you see Pinocchio sort of drowning forever.
Social issues and art
Petry: So many of the works have different specific issues that relate to … topics which you don’t necessarily expect. There’s one by a British artist called Ed Kay and it's very lifelike looking. It’s a big red strange rooster with a perfect circular tail and the title is “Illustration From a Child’s Guide to Rejection.” (The artist explained) this particular type of rooster is so perfectly bred, but that society doesn’t (tolerate imperfection) … So you can just look at the painting, which is so beautiful … that’s one way to enjoy it. But what I think is so much more interesting is when you think about it in terms of how society expects perfection from children.
Also, there’s a fantastic piece by Rebecca Scott which looks like a domestic image. It’s in the house and it’s a person — a woman — who is setting a table, and there’s a candle and all this stuff, and it’s called “The Perfect Hostess.” She’s done a whole series of paintings. It’s a fantastic social commentary about how women are treated in a commercial setting, and it’s also about …the misogyny that is inherent: that it is only women who are expected to look after the home.
The most well-known imagery in terms of still life that dealt with “Nature Morte” is called vanitas — and those were arresting images — images of skulls and skeletons and things that depicted death in a much more direct way. We have a painting by Rigoberto Gonzalez, which is a beautiful painting. And it really looks like it could come from, you know, 1600. And it depicts a severed head … and it’s called in Spanish “So That They Will Learn Respect” — and it’s an image of a man who has been murdered by a Mexican drug cartel and he’s been decapitated. So the image is this man’s head, his mouth in gaffer tape, and it’s very photo-realistic. And it’s what is happening right now along the border, which is where (the artist) is from in Texas. And the personal tragedy for him is that this happened to someone in his extended family. It’s a reminder to everyone that death is absolutely with them at all times.
A personal connection
Petry: I really wanted to bring a digital element into the show — to show people that, of course, people are working within the still-life tradition, but … within a digital sense, looking to the future. So if you come to the exhibit, you’ll see various QR codes which are different colors, and if you use your phone and you point your camera at the QR code it pops you up to a link. And when you press that link it’s a GIF of a vase of flowers living and dead. In the Victorian period, every flower had meaning. So you would give a woman red roses to say that you loved her. If you gave her a sunflower, it was an insult because you were saying she was haughty. And so there’s all these codes going on with the flowers. And so (in my piece) they are paired with the gay hanky code language from the 1970s, where men would wear different colored hankies and advertise the sex that they were looking for in a fetishist sense. So when you get to it, all the (symbolism comes) to bear to say to the general public that still life is (there) even in the digital age for you to look at.
As a gay man myself, the GIF with the QR codes is a very gay historical work. But we have works by other artists that are from LGBTQ+ community who have made works that — again the focus is on the “Nature Morte” — but there are aspects of it that are very subtly queer or sometimes obviously queer. So I think probably 10% of the artists in the show are from (the LGBTQ+) community. We really have a big connection along those lines.
Petry: One of the artists that is in the show is based here and is one of the professors of painting here at the school: Andrew Leventis. So it made sense to initiate the discussion of whether or not we could bring (the exhibition) to Charlotte. And it was so much positivity. We’ve only been here a little bit, and Charlotte is a place where a lot of things are happening … in terms of the arts. Cool things are happening here.