The most intriguing object in the Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art at the Portland Museum of Art (through June 6) is not a still life painting at all. It is a sculpture entitled “Grouper,” the skeleton of a fish rendered in linden wood by Fumio Yoshimura, an artist famed for edifying everyday objects in wood. “Grouper” is, however, the perfect embodiment of the idea of still life, which in Italian is called natura morta – dead nature.
Objects of Wonder features 52 works – mostly still life paintings – from the collection of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, supplemented by several works from the Portland Museum of Art’s own collection. The exhibition is arranged in several subcategories – flowers, vegetables and fruit, table top arrangements, three dimensional illusions, and natura morta – and includes still life compositions from Old Masters to modernists, pop artists, and contemporary painters.
Curiously, or perhaps provocatively, the Norton Museum called the still life show Eye Candy: Objects of Wonder and Delight when it first mounted it in the fall of 2008. “Eye candy” is an art world term that is generally derogatory in nature, suggesting art that is very beautiful but essentially meaningless. Someone apparently thought better of the designation when it sent Objects of Wonder on tour, Portland being the first of three stops, the others being the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.
The still lifes in the exhibition are hardly meaningless, including variations of the still life theme from artist ranging from the 17th century Spaniard Juan de Arellano and the 17th century Dutch master Christiaen Striep to great artists such as Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Gustave Courbet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol.
I must have been having a contrarian day when I visited the exhibition, as neither of the works I found most interesting were painting. One was Yoshimura’s carved fish bones. The other was Joseph Beuys’ 1970 “Filzanzug,” a felt suit on a hanger that is more self-portrait than still life.
Of local interest are contemporary still lifes painted by Maine realist Joseph Nicoletti and New Hampshire artist James Aponovich. And Walt Kuhn, a New York Modernist with Maine connections, is represented by “Dancing Pears” (1924), a still life he gave to the Norton in exchange for two boxes of cigars after he saw a 1912 landscape of his that he didn’t like in the museum’s collection.
Objects of Wonder can be appreciated superficially as eye candy, but it can also be seen as recapitulating chapters in the history of art, being especially strong from Cubism on. The Portland Museum has also installed a cabinet of potential still life objects in an alcove off the main gallery along with sketchbooks and pencils. Visitors are invited to make their own contributions to the exhibition. I left behind a three-second imitiation Picasso that I would gladly trade for a box of cigars.
[Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, ME, 207-775-6148]