Editor's note: The following essay was published January 16, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Tucson Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Tucson Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Common Ground: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd (b.1943) and The Dutch Renaissance (1600-1800)
by Christine C. Brindza
In the Tucson Museum of Art exhibition, Common Elegance: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd (open October 10, 2013 - January 12, 2014), visitors are encouraged to make personal connections to the American West through the insightful and intricate still life paintings of modern day artist William Shepherd. This artist uses everyday items and collectables in his work, which make significant statements about the West as well as create juxtapositions between cultural artistic forms. Shepherd's realistic style, the objects he paints, and the arrangement of these objects are reminiscent of concepts found centuries earlier in Dutch Renaissance painting. In an investigation between Shepherd's still life paintings and these ideologies there are parallels between aesthetic choices and social observations.
Born and raised in Casper, Wyoming, William Shepherd is no stranger to the American West. Surrounded by grandiose skies and open land, as a young man Shepherd's exposure to rural life and the outdoors influenced him to pursue a career in art. A graduate from the University of Wyoming, Shepherd's early work focused mostly on landscapes. His attention to color and surface textures at this time fostered his want for another challenge -- to paint still lifes. It became more appealing to convey elements of light and dark in deliberately posed, visually balanced compositions where each item could be physically manipulated for desired effect.[i]
For thirty years, Shepherd found his niche in relaying his love of the American West through the depiction of objects. After years of collecting trinkets of all sizes and origins -- pottery, textiles, beadwork, souvenirs, and other pieces -- Shepherd amassed a personal collection from various cultures of all sorts with unique designs and qualities. Not only were they obtained for the joy of collecting, but to serve as reference material for his paintings.
Shepherd's still life work conveys his own memories and feelings about the West and emphasizes what he calls "visuality" -- a visual harmony that appeals to the eye and soul. Further, his work is loosely defined as "Western kitsch" because of the tongue-in-cheek presentation of the West.[ii] This label derives from the incorporation of mass-produced China, Japan, or Mexico-made cowboy and Native American figurines, ca. 1950s cowboy bed sheets, and souvenirs, among other items in his paintings. Interestingly, these same things are viewed as commentary on mass-consumerism and the loss of the "genuine" West. Original Pueblo pottery, Plains Indian beadwork, and Navajo textiles balance the so-called real West with the inauthentic. Shepherd is keenly aware of this dichotomy, but his true goal is to create relationships between each object to one another and the space they occupy. He strives for a pleasing balance of shape, design, and color.
The visuality that Shepherd seeks comes from the placement of each object within the composition showing appropriate contrasts of light and dark. Shepherd modifies his palette, or color scheme, within each work. In Red Blanket, 2012, his colors are rich and warm, but he makes effort to incorporate other colors and shapes to achieve pictorial equilibrium. According to the artist, "The complication of simplicity makes this painting . . . Look closely at the red and you will see the many small brush strokes that were necessary to bring up the richness while eliminating the over-saturating of the red surface . . . This very hot painting begged for coolness and the small yellow green pattern beneath the cup and striped bowl was just right. This is a painting in which I couldn't add or eliminate anything that would improve it."[iii]
The work of Shepherd is not meant to be intentionally symbolic or representative, but there are elements that subtly nod to previous forms of still life works of art. Still life painting has been in existence since the time of Antiquity, when Greek and Roman villas were decorated with scenes of foodstuffs.[iv] The Greeks designated these images as rhopography, a depiction of insignificant objects.[v] The subject re-emerged in the time of the Renaissance, grasped and mastered by Dutch painters. The Dutch first coined the term, stilleven, or still life, in the mid-seventeenth century. Over time the genre consisted of painting flowers, food and marketplace scenes, and decorative, everyday items.[vi] Objects in these paintings from the Dutch Renaissance implied hidden meanings and symbolisms. There were allegorical connotations both secular and spiritual, and of opulence, deficiency, and morality.
Seventeenth century art theories impacted the study of lighting and color effects in still life paintings of the Dutch Renaissance. Some artists followed in the style of Caravaggio and Jan Vermeer who first chose to depict objects for their optical qualities. The refraction of light on the objects becomes the real subject. In Norbert Schneider's Still Life, with respect to the work of Willem Kalf, "His objects only exist to the extent that they can be perceived, but in order to be perceived they need light to dispel that darkness which is the original state of the world."
In this tradition, Shepherd's re-creations of collectables in his paintings emphasize form over narrative, light and shadow over content. Each painting is assembled for aesthetic considerations, not allegory. However, each grouping is a reminder of the Dutch pronkstelleven, or still life paintings of valuable or rare objects on a table.[vii] Acoma Seed Jar, 2008, is an example of this type, including cross-cultural representations of Mexican, Native American, and Euro-American pieces. Shepherd states, "I try not to think in terms of anything but harmony, so there may be expensive pieces beside cheap pieces in my set ups or some pieces that are old and others new, but if they advance my vision then they work."[viii]
In the Renaissance, interests in science accompanied by the need for exhibiting wealth resulted in an increase in collecting and displaying objects and various curios. Artists were hired to paint these cabinet d 'amateur representations.[ix] Shepherd, too, paints cabinet d 'amateur, but not as displays of wealth or status. Instead, the items chosen are considered valuable because of a unique motif or distinctive texture. Ojo Caliente, 2006, follows this practice showcasing different types of collectables and curiosities. The painting highlights a gift shop, factory-made ceramic cowboy with saguaro cactus and horse beside handmade Native American objects. The use of kitschy items and historic pieces displays the wit and impact of mass-consumerism that Shepherd defines as part of the American West. Instead of embellishing symbols of wealth, Shepherd focuses on the light on each object's surface, not the object alone. Shepherd explains, "Combining kitsch with historic pieces requires that you don't bring any prejudices with you. The West is full of kitsch, and I see it as an interesting part of the culture that speaks well for the West ? it shows we have a sense of humor about ourselves."[x]
Shepherd's Table Near Door, 2008, is reminiscent of a Dutch keucken, or kitchen still life first introduced in the mid-1500s.[xi] In Table Near Door, The broom handle, an ordinary daily tool, inspires thought about home life and domesticity. Shepherd painted a softened light from the left, which casts dramatic shadows from the rounded pottery and onions. It counterbalances the hard lines and angular shape of the table. The atmosphere of the work emulates a sense of comfort and ease, warmth and calm. Typical Dutch Renaissance keucken scenes are often full of symbols of luxury showcasing full platters of food and other earthly delights. Table Near Door's simplicity contrasts with this standard and does not feature these types of objects.
However, Biblical narratives were incorporated into some keucken paintings of the Dutch Renaissance. These presented suggestions for the need of nourishment of both the body and soul.[xii] Shepherd's work leaves itself open to interpretation within this context. Most perceptibly, the illuminated doorway on the left perhaps demonstrates the idea of a Godly presence or spiritual nature. This is left up to the viewer to determine, as Shepherd commented, "The interested public has always wondered what artists are trying to say . . . To understand what an artist is doing you need go no further than his work or his statements."[xiii]
Still life paintings have the ability to translate history, economic climate, and beliefs of societies from its time of origin. During the Dutch Renaissance the conditions in trade created an economic boon in the production of goods and agriculture in the Netherlands.[xiv] Newly wealthy farmers demanded further signs of wealth to be displayed in their paintings. Jewelry, fine dishes, decorative objects, and an abundance of food items were representative of luxury and a prosperous lifestyle. Artists included counterpoints to these affluent items, for example, by incorporating signs of belief and values in Christianity, such as bread, grapes, fish, cheese, and wine. These interpretations varied between Protestant and Roman Catholic points of view.[xv]
In Shepherd's Remains, 2011, a black Pueblo plate is located on the bottom center of the image and above it hangs a Plains Indian parfleche. Across the table lies a Sioux hair drop. Due to its color and location, the plate becomes a bold negative space, an element Shepherd uses to draw attention. There are few objects represented, but Remains contains a powerful, retrospective message about a segment of the history and documentation of the American West and Native American Peoples. The dislodging of Native American tribes and settlement of Euro-Americans in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries highly impacted how the land and people developed to the current day. The Plains Indian objects represent the peoples of the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains; the Pueblo plate of the Southwest. Each object has a story to tell. These items are symbolic of the past, portraying themes of both transience and continuity. The artist brings to the forefront a view of the societal changes that took place in the West, and what he called its "cultural remains." [xvi]
In the Dutch Renaissance, vanitas, or vanity paintings did not shy away from portraying the fleeting qualities of life and mortal nature. Symbolic objects usually included skulls, books, money, or other items signifying ephemerality, wealth, and power. Although not conceived as a vanitas work, Remains clenches the brevity of artistic and cultural traditions. Shepherd looks at items from the past but interprets them in a contemporary setting for the viewer to personally reflect and engage.
The votive candle in the painting Santo Nino, 2012, provides a source of light that blends cohesively with the dim light from the left. Shepherd used the candle's cylindrical shape to mimic the larger Hopi tulip vessel behind it, creating a stronger, visually balanced central foreground. The glow from the candle and the reflections on the Peruvian silver tray and Maria Martinez black-on-black ceramic plate enhance the mood of the painting, which is intended to be slightly mysterious and take place at twilight.[xvii]
From one end of the painting to the next, there are intricate contrasts between lighter and darker colored objects as well as their surface textures. The artist chose to use elliptical objects to "bracket" the arrangement of objects with opposing textural and color values.[xviii] The smooth surface of the black plate is in direct contrast to the dappled, mirror-like silver tray. In the center, the Hopi tulip vessel presents a strong vertical element between them.
Concentrating on the colors of the objects, from left to right there is a progressive transition from black, to mid-neutral and warm tones, to light. The background, however, follows an opposing gradient of light to dark, ending with a climactic exhibition of dramatic shadows. With a sense of theatrics, Shepherd fills the space to the far right with lighting effects, contrasting heavy shadow and absence of light with the objects that reflect and reveal it.
Santo Nino, 2012, aligns itself with religious connotations of Christianity found within Dutch Renaissance still life painting. Candles were commonly used in vanitas works, indicating thoughtfulness, which is also the type of disposition Shepherd endeavored to create.[xix] Yet, Shepherd does not use the votive candle, a devotion to Santo Nino, in a religious or spiritual context. The shape and size appealed to the artist to create a specific nature within the work. "Perhaps the implied sunset, the human touch of a warm glow of the candle, and the reflections on the silver platter add to this painting's tone."[xx]
Shepherd's still life paintings, whether consciously or unconsciously, follow in the path of the Dutch painters of the Renaissance. Shepherd's work is derived from his personal vision of synchronicity between objects, not communication about wealth or religion; but it does utilize objects that express meanings to modern society of the American West.
Still Life painters of the Dutch Renaissance often left interpretation of paintings open to the viewer, leaving the meaning of each object in obscurity. This led to meditation and, in turn, intellectual fulfillment. In gazing at Shepherd's paintings, this message seems to apply. His use of light and shadow upon various surfaces is worthy of analysis, understanding, and discussion. In 1632, Jacob Cats wrote, "Experiences teach us that many things appear to best advantage when not seen completely, but somehow veiled and in dark shadow."[xxi]
i Autry National Center of the American West, Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale, "William Shepherd", 2010 <http://theautry.org/masters/2010/artist/William_Shepherd>.
ii Michael Duty. "William Shepherd: Reviewing the West," (Gerald Peters Gallery: Santa Fe 2008) 6.
iii William Shepherd. "Fwd: Answers to Questions." Message to Desiree Annis. 22 Jul 2013. Email.
iv Charles Sterling. Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Time. (New York: Universe Books, Inc. Editions Pierre Tisné, Paris, 1959) 9.
v Sterling 11.
vi ldikó Ember. Delights for the Sense: Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Paintings from Budapest. (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum/ Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and Leigh Yawkley Woodson Art Museum Wausau, Wisconsin: 1989) 18.
vii Ember 18.
ix Ember 23.
x Ojo Caliente wall label. Common Elegance: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd, Tucson Museum of Art
xi Walter Liedtke. "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800", Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, < www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/nd_nstl.htm>.
xii Ember 19.
xiv Norbert Schneider. Still Life: Still Life Paintings in the Early Modern Period. Benedikt Taschen, Cologne, Germany, 1999. 18.
xv Ember 26 and Schneider 101.
xix Sterling 51.
xx Santo Nino wall label. Common Elegance: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd, Tucson Museum of Art
xxi Schneider 19.
About the author
Christine Brindza is Glasser Curator, Art of the American West at the Tucson Museum of Art. Ms. Brindza is the curator of Common Elegance: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd, on exhibit at the Museum October 12 2013 through January 12 2014.
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published January 16, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Tucson Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on January 15, 2014.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Julie Sasse, Ph.D., Chief Curator and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Tucson Museum of Art for her help concerning publishing the essay.
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