UNIT 1 Contextual Essay

An investigation into how artists consider objects as a subject matter within a creative context

By Yiting Liu, (13,May, 2019)

This essay begins by explore my interest in objects, humanity and try to challenge our common opposition between the person and the thing, the animate and inanimate, the subject and the object. I will look at how still life has developed as an important subject from traditional paintings to contemporary arts and consider consumerism issues nowadays. To conclude, I will put forth the idea to the relationship between human and what we possess.


“We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences but on less families ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocative to thought” (Turkle, 2011, pg5). With these two ideas, I start to dig into the stories of objects around me and questioning about why people collect things. It can be an object, a text, a song, or an image. Being an artist, I want to explore the relationship between human and objects. As written in Daniel Miller’s book “The best way to understand, convey and appreciate our humility is through attention to our fundamental materiality”. (Miller, 2010)


“Still life”, which is an extremely rich idea in the history of art and encompasses multiple periods and places. To recognize the importance of still life paintings, Bryson Norman said that “its loyalty is to objects, not to human significance. The human subject is not only physically exiled: the scale of values on which narrative and history painting are based is erased also” (Bryson, 1989, pg228). Tracing back to the histories of still life paintings, I find it interesting to investigate what a painter paint in the subject of still life. In 16th century, Cotán’s painting of Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Fig.1) so perfectly set up, “so that the objects are not miniaturized but hyperbolized, made to seem vast, or more exactly made to seem without scale – objects of indeterminate magnitude” (Bryson, 1989, pg233). This scalelessness way of painting still life somehow reflecting in my work when I start to intentionally set up my paintings model. I think it makes the work to be seen as the objects which are in a world before the subject entered.


Fig, 1.- Juan Sánchez Cotán (1561-1627), Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego.

Through the time passing, there are more elements showing in the subject of still life. Objects are showing as a social reflective or even more the social world. The idea is highlighted by Bryson Norman, who suggest that In Baugin’s still life painting (Fig.2) it return “to a subject now constructed not as simply creatural, but as familiar with the whole experience of wealth and rank that belongs to the lived reality of the social world” (Bryson, 1989, pg247). Perhaps, we can see more information from Chardin’s artworks, who was an 18th century French painter and considered a master of still life. In Chardin’s work(Fig.3), “the objects are arranged informally, and not for display. They can be crammed together or moved as required (Bryson, 1989, pg251)”. His paintings have more space and air.

The sense of social world and connection to human that etching in still life paintings can be seen more in contemporary artists. Giorgio Morandi (Fig.4), an Italian painter who specialized in still life. “Although he painted generic household objects, critics noted how his representation of these objects conveyed a sense of Morandi's personality, monastic habits, and Bolognese environment (The art story, accessed 3 Jan 2019)”.


We can also find the different ways that artists try to depict the still life objects in their artworks. For instance, Alex Hanna, who painted a series of pillows, which looks like being used by human and got different textures. In Sweet Dreams(Fig.5), the pillow not just put in the middle of the painting but also standing like it have a soul.

If the society are inseparable with things as we see through the histories of still life paintings, then we must to find the deeper connection between objects and human. The consideration of objects as a resonance of memories could be seen in Michael Landy’s “Break down”, a performance art in 2001. He compiled his belongings, which are totally 7227 items that he had over 37 years. He then destroyed all of them in an old C&A shop on Oxford Street. Lingwood, who commissioned Break Down and as a co-director of Artangel, believes that Break Down wasn’t “simply a formal attack on consumerism, but something a bit more complex – about the relationship between who we are and what we possess” (Sooke,2016, accessed). As a result, this exhibition leads to a more existential question, which was: who am I? With no doubt,” all of us, to differing degrees, use possessions to construct our identities and project ourselves to others (Sooke,2016, accessed 2 Jan 2019)”. As I looked to the documentary of this work, my feelings was so complicated and I started to look around those objects around me, especially for those I have possessed for more than 10 years. Lingwood said that “it’s not very difficult, for many people, to witness the destruction of household objects such as crockery. But to see the destruction of personal mementoes, letters, photographs, works of art – that is deeply disturbing” (Sooke,2016, accessed 2 Jan 2019).

Mamma Andersson, who is a well-known artist by having a unique and timeless quality through her juxtapositions of thick paint and textured washes. In Stays(Fig.8), I saw the objects with relation to women position in period.

In conclusion, Objects are even more connected to our life then we thought. By reading the book, “Evocative Objects (Turkle, S, 2011)”, I found that every single human has some stuff which are indispensable for them. “In this collection of autobiographical essays, Scientists, humanists, artists, and designers trace the power of objects in their lives, objects that connect them to ideas and to people (Turkle, S, 2011, pg5)”. There are several chapter in this book, I find my interests in looking at the “Objects with discipline and desire” and the “Objects of history and exchange”. With the understanding of emotional connections to objects, I want to depict it within my paintings. In consideration of these ideas, my work will seek to create stunning imagery of objects that resonant with past experiences and memories.