Fruitful Reverie

A word of warning: It is inadvisable to have a heavy lunch immediately before taking in an art exhibition featuring an abundance of food. Or at least, that was my experience when I visited "Naturaleza Muerta: Latin American Still Life from South Florida Collections," now at the Boca Raton Museum...
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A word of warning: It is inadvisable to have a heavy lunch immediately before taking in an art exhibition featuring an abundance of food. Or at least, that was my experience when I visited "Naturaleza Muerta: Latin American Still Life from South Florida Collections," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

It didn't help that among the first works I encountered was a handful of large paintings by the great Colombian artist Fernando Botero, all featuring spreads lavish enough to intimidate all but the most stout-hearted. As I remarked to a companion, it's no wonder the people in Botero's paintings are so famously rotund.

But seriously, folks, an entire exhibition devoted to still lifes (yes, that's the proper term) is almost bound to be dominated by foodstuffs, although flowers are also a perennial favorite subject. The Boca Museum show is a virtual cornucopia of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, punctuated by an occasional piece of seafood or such food paraphernalia as pots, pitchers, platters, and flatware.

Like those apples that became a well-known obsession for Cézanne, some items seem to be irresistible to still-life artists -- pears, for instance, perhaps because of their highly variable contours, are a familiar presence here. Watermelons also show up in quite a few pieces, including a 1968 Botero in which half a dozen houseflies flutter around a melon that has been carved into a handful of various-sized portions. A pair of paintings by Ana Mercedes Hoyos, a Colombian contemporary of Botero's, display a fascination with the watermelon's possibilities for studies in form and color.

One of the most enigmatic paintings is Café de Noche, a 2005 oil by David Rodríguez. It's dominated by a hefty slice of watermelon with what appears to be a white cloth napkin draped over one section of it. In front to the left is a cup of coffee on a saucer, above which are two forks stuck into the melon's flesh, with mysterious lengths of twine that connect them and trail off to the sides. A sliver of moon in the background echoes the shape of the melon. For those of us who associate an ice-cold watermelon with respite from a hot, sunny afternoon, it's a tantalizing image of nocturnal pleasure.

The exhibition is peppered with pieces that allude to the Cubist preoccupation with still life. Among the most notable are Dominican artist Jaime Colson's Composition (1927), several paintings from the 1940s and 1950s by Cuban Mario Carreño, and a lovely 1949 Picassoesque oil, Les Quatre Elements, by Cuban master Wifredo Lam that combines a fish on a platter with three other items that become more difficult to identify the longer you look at them.

Many of the works here, however, are tantalizing for the spin they put on the traditional still life. Take the flies from the aforementioned Botero Watermelons (1968), which reappear in Naturaleza Muerta Colombiana, a 1969 oil in which they flutter above some oversized desserts and linger on the tablecloth near a glass and a half-peeled orange. There's also a teasing afterthought that's a sort of grace note to the image in the form of a tiny drawer in the table on which the still life rests, half-open to reveal a bit of string coiled inside and trailing out and down. It's one of those inexplicable touches that can make or break a work of art, and in this case, it makes it. The same is true of some of the quirky items in Seis Fósforos, a tabletop still life by Uruguayan Ignacio Iturria, whose solo show was a highlight of the Boca Museum's 2004 season.

A pair of oil paintings by Cuban Julio Larraz are fairly straightforward portrayals of bowls of fruits and vegetables. But the artist also makes a not-so-subtle joke about food in L'Aperitiff (1998) by placing an assortment of produce inside the skeletal jaws of what might be a small dinosaur. And in his Continental Breakfast (1997), a baguette, two cups and saucers, two oranges, and a metal tea or coffee pot float in black space near what could be the horizon of a planet seen from outer space. They're like escapees from one of Philippe Hausman's famous photographs of Salvador Dalí surrounded by gravity-defying objects.

Two spectacular paintings by Guillermo Muñoz Vera of Chile dispense with food altogether in favor of hyperrealistic compositions. Libros Antiguos y Escayolla II (Ancient Books and Plaster Cast II) (2003) juxtaposes, as the prosaic title implies, a classical-style plaster bust with books and manuscripts. Platones Sobre un Arcon (Containers on Chest) (1999) is a similarly literal rendering of a handful of metal vessels on a wooden chest, all with the look and feel of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Claudio Bravo, also Chilean, has a handful of pieces nearby that also demonstrate a fine flair for photorealism, especially Still Life in the Artist's Studio (1979), which consists of nothing more than four containers of various sorts on a simple wood-and-metal stand in a corner next to an electrical outlet.

What, finally, are we to make of this collection of dozens of still lifes by artists from throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean? Hard to say. A friend of mine (Hispanic, by the way) flipped through the catalog for Naturaleza Muerta before wearily declaring still life one of the least interesting of all art genres. At the time, I bristled, recalling specific pieces from the exhibition that had struck a chord in me.

But then, over the course of a few days, the seeming arbitrariness of the show began to bug me. And when I turned to the catalog, a surprisingly languorous essay by the museum's usually astute executive director, George S. Bolge, failed to shed much light on these highly varied studies of inanimate objects.

In the end, I circled back to Bodegón (Still Life), a Frida Kahlo watercolor that hangs at the very beginning of the exhibition (and, dating to 1928-29, is by far the oldest piece in the show). In its own weird way, this unassuming little image by a painter best-known for her self-portraiture, consisting of the odd ceramic trinity of a floral-patterned platter, an upended pig, and a horse, has more to say about still lifes than everything else that follows it.

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