Sustainability and the impact of unfettered consumerism are big issues of our time and they are explored in a fascinating new exhibition at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds.
Still Life: Things Devouring Time views our seemingly insatiable desire to consume through the lens of historical and contemporary still life artworks, taking as its starting point the Dutch 17th century painting Still Life with the Drinking Horn, Lobster and Glasses (1653) by Willem Kalf. On loan from the National Gallery, it is a striking image of wealth and opulence and like all ‘vanitas’ paintings reminds the viewer that earthly pleasures are short-lived. “I was really thrilled when we got that painting as I wanted the exhibition to have a strong central element to it,” says Dawn Woolley, one of the four exhibiting artists and co-curator of the exhibition. “Then I started to look at contemporary artists who were making work about consumer culture and sustainability.” Woolley’s own work is inspired by those themes.
A research fellow at Leeds Arts University, her practice covers photography, installation, video and performance. “There seems to be a resurgence of still life as a genre,” she says. “It became popular with artists in the 17th century because it was a quick way for them to reflect on the changes taking place in society at that time by depicting the objects around them. If you look at today, the things that will remain won’t give a good impression of our society.”
Her work in the show includes the series Relics – photographs of objects made by the artist out of packaging from a range of contemporary commodities. Quirky and humorous, the images nevertheless tell the darker story of today’s throwaway society, the importance that western capitalism places on material goods and how damaging that is to both the soul and the planet.
Our current level of consumption is not sustainable; it is clearly doing a huge amount of environmental harm, a message which comes across loud and clear in Nicole Keeley’s haunting series of photographs entitled Tide Mark, 2017. The images are of fish tanks in which float pieces of plastic waste, which could all easily be mistaken for forms of marine life. The waste objects depicted in Keeley’s work were gathered by the artist from Norfolk beach over the course of two months last year.
Also featured in the exhibition is Caroline McCarthy, an artist whose work incorporates the most basic of everyday materials to ask interesting questions about value. Her 2007 work Vanitas comprises a small canvas to which she has stuck hundreds of black dots hole-punched from a bin bag to reconstruct a 17th-century Dutch sill life painting; hanging below it is the second part of the work – the holey bin bag. It makes the point that while the bin appears to be of little worth, without the humble bin bag the canvas would not exist.
In his Signs series Simon Ward takes the small signs made by homeless people, which can be easily overlooked in the street, and blows them up to billboard size so that they can no longer be ignored. They make a forceful statement that not everyone in our modern society can enjoy the pleasures of consumption. “All the works talk to each other in interesting ways,” says Woolley. “Objects are given centre stage in order to foreground the wasteful, destructive consequences of our insatiable appetite for things.”
To March 23. Free entry.