top row from left

Tiger Lilies by Martha Armstrong, 2009, oil, 30 x 24. All artwork this article courtesy Zeuxis. Ceramic Basket and Towel by John Goodrich, 2009, oil on board, 12 x 16
center row from left

Porch Door With Common Object by Susan Cohen,
2009, oil on wood, 16 x 12.

collage and watercolor, 131⁄2 x 121⁄2.
bottom row from left

Feast of St. Francis by Elizabeth Geiger, 2009, oil, 36 x 30. Open Cloth and Sweet Peas by Deborah Kirklun, 2009,

oil, 16 x 13.

Still Life With Coffee and Tea by Sydney Licht, 2009, Carmen Miranda Still Life by Margaret McCann, 2009, Still Life With Three Patterns and Six Figures
by Megan Williamson, 2009, oil, 22 x 14.

oil, 40 x 30.

Zeuxis and the art of the everyday
For a recent show, more than 30 still life painters created a painting incorporating the same ordinary object. The results are revealing, both about the artists themselves and about the value of pausing to examine the common, uncelebrated things that surround us. | by Michael Gormley


uring sluggish economic times such as these, the need for frugality can sometimes lead to greater overall moderation in thoughts and in actions. In a way, such moderation is a moral undertaking, as lessening one’s excesses can lead to a greater understanding of oneself and of what is truly valuable. These concerns bring to mind the archetype of the starving artist, although it may be a romantic conceit. I recall a friend once remarking (in the economically robust 1990s, nonetheless) that artists shouldn’t make a lot of money, because the accumulation of wealth can lead to complacency and loss of resourcefulness. My friend may have been right. The artistic process, at least in most traditional media, requires only a moderate investment of material resources—with just a few tubes of paint and a bit of raw canvas an artist can create a whole universe. The artist’s more substantial investment is in his or her careful attention to craft along with a sincere search for a genuine self-expression informed by a spirited exploration of life. These aspects of the artistic undertaking are essentially nonmaterial. True artistic expression is, by nature, alchemical—a transformation of nonverbal, often illogical, at times accidental, intents and processes into something singular and unified. Zeuxis, an association of still life painters, recently played with the idea of humble beginnings in their exhibition “The Common Object.” This is an intriguing title, given that paintings are generally considered to be a rarefied, rather than a populist, item. The participating artists were asked to create a still life incorporating the most utilitarian of objects—a kitchen dishtowel. The show offers a meditative alternative to some of the art world’s more excessive spectacles. By focusing on the transformation of unspectcular elements into subject matter worthy of artistic engagement, “The Common Object” reveals how the processes of artistic transmutation can alter our view of the world. The
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46 American Artist

paintings carefully balance imitation of the real world with aesthetic representation; drawing, surface handling, and compositional strategies share center stage with a celebration of the beauty everyday life has to offer. Zeuxis is named after the ancient painter who was born in southern Italy in the 5th century B.C. He created several inf luential works, although none have survived. He is perhaps best known for the fabled contest he staged with the painter Parrhasius to determine who was the greater artist. When their paintings were complete, Zeuxis drew back the curtain to unveil a painting of grapes, which appeared so luscious and inviting that birds f lew down to peck at them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain and show his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal that the “curtain” was actually the painting itself. Zeuxis conceded defeat, saying, “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.” Zeuxis member John Goodrich explains that the association was founded in New York City in 1994 by a group of painters seeking to re-evaluate still life—considered in some traditions to be the least prestigious painting genre—in the postmodern art world. Membership varies but usually numbers about 25 artists, all of whom share an interest in a perceptual response to nature and a search for aesthetic value. This interest reveals itself in a wide variety of styles, influences, techniques, and motifs. Still life is an ideal subject in times of moderation and ref lection. It asks that we slow down and be quiet so that we can truly see and appreciate what lies in our midst. A still life painting is essentially an interior view—both because it usually depicts domestic objects and also because of the contemplative nature of its production and appreciation. Seeking out and finding the subtle nuances of objects and experiencing this heightened sensitivity is an immensely fulfilling aesthetic experience. Perhaps it can help to quell the constant drive for the next thrill. By seeing more and being sensitive to beauty, we crave less. Artists, particularly those the artists represented in “The Common Object,” help point the way to this contented existence with their focused vision and depiction of the real world.
48 American Artist

About the Artist
Richard Baker maintains an active exhibition and teaching schedule in addition to his studio practice. In 2011 he will be featured in several shows, including at Gregory Lind Gallery, in San Francisco; Clark Gallery, in Lincoln, Massachusetts; and Arthur Rogers Gallery, in New Orleans. He conducts annual workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and at the Truro Center for The Arts at Castle Hill, in Massachusetts. For the past four years he has taught painting as an adjunct professor at Mason Gross School of the Arts, at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.


opposite pAge

Wonder Towel
by Richard Baker, 2009, gouache on paper on board, 14 x 11.

Orange, Black, and Coil

by Bevin Engman, 2009, oil on board, 18 x 22.

collections of certain subjects—lightbulbs, for example. When an abstract bit of painting suggests something from this collection, he’ll find a “real life” equivalent and begin “locating the image” in the paint. Gradually, an entire painting suggests itself in this manner. Baker uses Williamsburg, Gamblin, and Holbein oil paints. He employs various self-constructed surfaces, such as wood, canvas adhered to wood, and paper adhered to canvas. For gouache paintings, he prefers to work on Holbein and Arches hot-pressed 140-lb or 300-lb watercolor paper, and he uses Fabriano watercolor paper as well.

RiChaRD BakeR

Wonder Towel, by Richard Baker, is a whimsical view of the show’s kitchen mainstay. The piece recalls the 19th-century trompe l’oeil painter William Harnett, who often depicted objects that were unlikely painting subjects. Baker reports that his working process involves simply staying aware of his surroundings. He notes how things look, how they are used, and what people do with them. When he finds objects that resonate with him, he acquires them and takes them to his studio, where they become absorbed into his collection of intriguing refuse. He doesn’t set up a still life to paint from, preferring instead to paint a single object or

Bevin engMan

a very small grouping. For the past five years or so, he has been working on a gouache series depicting individual, well-worn paperback books. Technically they are still lifes, but they are also, in a way, a form of portraiture. In general, Baker’s paintings begin as abstractions. He works on a surface for days—or sometimes for months or years—until spaces, forms, and divisions begin to suggest subjects. He keeps a file of images in which he amasses

Bevin Engman’s Orange, Black, and Coil offers an austere view of minimalist shapes that reference Modernist tabletop designware. The folksy dishtowel fits uneasily with these handsome objects that sport clean lines and surfaces. Engman, whose minimalist sensibility would find the towel’s clumsiness instrusive, takes great pains to manipulate and purify its shape into a clean and tight spiralling bundle. This energized, purified, relatively organic form acts as a foil against the composition’s display of no-nonsense design and solidity. Yet one still senses that the towel is crashing the party—an imposter that somehow
February 2011 49

slipped past the aesthetic gatekeepers. n Advice Engman says that she From Bevin Engman is most interested in “the ■ Consider the unique territory where represencharacter of your still life. tation and abstraction What makes it unique in meet.” She has been hue range, value range, working in still life for or saturation? 20 years, and the genre ■ Develop the painting as is ideally suited to her a whole rather than as a explorations of perception series of separate parts. and the fugitive nature of color. She also creates ■ Evaluate color as landscapes and abstract comparative rather than gouache collages, and absolute hues. regardless of genre or me■ Painting is challenging. dium, her work remains Be resilient and patient. interrelated due to her overarching concern with the formal behaviors of color, structure, and light. Setting up still lifes is a fairly complex process, and Engman notes that it takes a lot of experimentation and refinement. She sometimes spends hours trying different combinations of objects, light conditions, framing, and points of view. After she arrives at a suitable arrangement, she determines the background color field that will provide context behind the objects, and then begins to work on the painting. “Everything is up for grabs for a long time,” she says. “Regardless of the composition, I look for odd combinations of shapes, color, and overlapping forms. I try to encounter the objects newly as sensual, formal experiences.” Engman usually works directly from life. “I find that converting a three-dimensional experience to a twodimensional language is fraught with challenges that interest me,” she says. “In struggling with those challenges, discoveries arise that I could not have predicted. I’m most interested in perceptual situations that I have trouble understanding. I paint to gain that understanding. I guess I paint to assert not what I know but what I do not know.” Engman believes that given the growth of technology in our culture and the resulting saturation of images,

painting, rather than becoming anachronistic, has become an increasingly radical pursuit. “I like to imagine French painters taking to the streets to protest in support of slow art—much the way chefs champion the slow food movement. It’s for this reason I’ve valued my association with the people of Zeuxis. They are painters who share a belief in the physical over the virtual and in the linking of time to effort in the making of things of value.” Engman prefers Holbein oil paints, but she uses other brands for certain colors, such as Winsor & Newton’s sap green and mauve blue shade; and Old Holland’s Scheveningen purple brown and kings blue deep. She also uses Liquin medium and Utrecht sable brushes. For supports, she currently uses cradled birch plywood panels that she primes with Golden’s Sandable Hard Gesso.

MaRk kaRneS

Mark Karnes ups the banality ante with Light Bulb, which features a “green” f lorescent bulb along with the prescribed dishtowel. The results, however, are far from banal. Employing a limited palette of muted grays, barely-there greens, and smokey umbers, Karnes arrives at a sensitive, nearly abstract study exploring value, tone, and gesture. The lightbulb, unmoored in a simultaneous advance and retreat with the picture plane, both f loats above and rests upon the patterned towel, which has been reduced to a gestural grid. The work appears foremost to be painterly, evincing a spirited brushwork that draws out the essential elements of what has been observed in high relief. Although clearly representational, the work sacrifices verisimilitude in favor of abstract design principles and a rapid execution that preserves the immediacy and purity of visual perception.
opposite pAge Above

Still Life With Turkish Pitcher
by William D. Barnes, 2009, oil, 18 x 22.

Light Bulb
by Mark Karnes, 2009, oil on board, 4 x 6.

About the Artist
Mark karnes holds a B.F.A. in painting from the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and an M.F.A. in painting from Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. His drawings are in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, and he has received grants from numerous institutions, including from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has recently exhibited at List Gallery, at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania; The American Academy of Arts and Letters, in New York City; The International School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture Gallery, in Umbria, Italy; Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia; and Pinkard Gallery, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore. For more information, visit

About the Artist
Bevin engman holds a B.F.A. in painting from Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art) and a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. She teaches painting at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. She has exhibited at Arden Gallery, in Boston; Bachelier Cardonsky Gallery, in Kent, Connecticut; and at the Colby Museum of Art.

Karnes offers no easy or foolproof method for ensuring a successful work; he notes that he can sometimes finish a painting in a day, though some take much longer. Generally he starts with a quick underpainting in raw umber, then he tries to get everything down in the first sitting. “Sometimes they work and they’re finished, and sometimes they can go on for several years,” he says. Karnes’ paintings are generally executed in oil, for which he prefers Winsor & Newton paints. For acrylic paintings he uses Golden paints, and he has recently enjoyed their new Open Acrylics product line. For his oil and acrylic paintings he uses Utrecht synthetic brushes. For his wash drawings and watercolor paintings he uses Winsor & Newton watercolors, Raphael brushes, and Saunders Waterford paper.

50 American Artist

February 2011



On the Line
by Catherine Kehoe, 2009, oil on panel, 8 x 8.

CaTheRine kehOe

“Painting is all very difficult!” Catherine Kehoe exclaims. “And it doesn’t get any easier, because as I begin to master some aspect of the medium, I set different standards for myself. The standards are all internal. I don’t need anyone to tell me what is strong and what is not. The voice within is loud and clear—it banishes all other voices from the studio.” Kehoe’s painting On the Line is a forceful study of form, color, and movement through the classic motif of drapery. Like Karnes, Kehoe pushes the envelope on the depiction of the banal by hanging her towel on a clothesline. Baroque drama meets domestic drugery as Kehoe stages a domestic sacrifice signaled by the splay of the towel—a loaded gesture that recalls Francisco Zurbarán’s The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion. Kehoe works mostly from life and uses photographic sources for certain groups of paintings. She notes that working from photographs expands the possibilities of subject matter. “Photography is a tool we have at our disposal as painters,” she says. “It was important to me that I not attempt to copy photographs but use them as a source to make paintings. It is not easy to keep the painting part foremost when using a photographic source, although many of the painters I admire most find ways to use photography to serve their painting.” Kehoe arrives at something she wants to paint intuitively. Usually it takes a few days for her to come up with an arrangement, and often she will need to tell herself to stop arranging and begin painting even though she isn’t convinced she has found something worth depicting. “Some days I move things around and nothing looks interesting,” she says. “Other days everything I place in front of my eyes excites me. I am not sure why my response is different each

Kehoe’s Materials
pAlette ■ Indian yellow ■ cadmium yellow pale or lemon ■ cadmium yellow ■ cadmium yellow deep ■ cadmium orange ■ cadmium scarlet ■ cadmium red deep ■ alizarin crimson ■ dioxazine violet ■ ultramarine blue ■ cerulean blue ■ viridian ■ cadmium green pale ■ sap green ■ raw umber ■ burnt sienna ■ perylene crimson ■ quinacridone red ■ quinacridone violet ■ phthalocyanine blue ■ phthalocyanine turquoise ■ cobalt teal or turquoise brUsHes ■ Utrecht Kolinsky sable brights, Nos. 10 through 16. These allow for crisp, narrow lines, as well as broad shapes of color. sUrfAces ■ 4"-x-6" panels and paperboard
February 2011 53

About the Artist
Catherine kehoe received a B.F.A. in painting from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston, and an M.F.A. in painting from the School of Visual Arts, in New York City. She has received numerous awards, including a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and has participated in many exhibitions, including several solo shows at Howard Yezerski Gallery, in Boston, where she is represented. She teaches painting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. For more information, visit

52 American Artist

day. But I sit down to paint, regardless of how I am feeling about it. Within minutes I am fully engaged.” The artist prefers to work small. “I suppose the scale of my paintings forces an intimate relationship between the viewer and the painting,” Kehoe says. “It’s like whispering. There is a power in sotto voce and in intimate paintings. They don’t scream at you, but they invite your attention. Painting a still life can be fraught with difficulty and failure. What keeps me interested are those moments when I try a different, bolder, or simpler way and realize that is all I need.”

Ruth Miller is the classicist of the Zeuxis group. Her painting Shell and Dishtowel is a carefully composed and painterly arrangement of space, form, texture, and movement. Miller states that she is always looking at the motif and trying to explain to herself how she sees it. “It is more about how I am seeing than what I am seeing,” she says. “I love the three-way relationship between me, my canvas, and my motif. It is a long pursuit during which looking, memory, and desire all play a part. I hope that when I do justice to my subject, the geometry reveals itself. I am as interested in the presence of my subject as I am in a formal concept of composition. My work is not about faithfully


copying or rendering the object but about finding n Advice an equivalent—an image From Ruth Miller that will stand in for it.” ■ Go to the museums and Miller often works a look at great painting. fairly long time setting The life and mystery of a up a still life, but at other painting cannot really be times one falls into place reproduced. Look long quickly. She finds that she and deeply at the real returns to the same kinds thing. of forms and arrange■ Make sure you always ments and moves them have a sketchbook with around until it seems you, especially when right—until a chord is traveling and visiting struck. She believes this is museums. mostly an intuitive process, adding that, “In a sense, I am making the painting at both ends: choosing and arranging the setup, then recreating it on a two-dimensional surface through paint.”
below opposite pAge

Shell and Dishtowel
by Ruth Miller, 2009, oil, 10½ x 14.

Still Life With Fork
by Janice Nowinski, 2009, oil on linen, 22 x 28.

About the Artist
Ruth Miller holds a B.A. from the University of Missouri, and she also studied at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. She has exhibited at the Lohin Geduld Gallery, in New York City; the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virgina; and The Alexandre Hogue Gallery, at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma. She has taught drawing and painting at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture since 1973. Her work is in the permanent collections of such notable institutions as the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington; the University of Delaware, in Newark; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC; the National Academy, in New York City; and many others.

JaniCe nOWinSki

Like Miller, Janice Nowinski always works from direct observation. Still Life With Fork is a study about the immediacy of perception—a record of how one actually sees and comprehends life as it unfolds. The setup is just a jumping off point for Nowinski; what she is painting is her experience. “I am not trying to do a realistic depiction of the still life,” she says, “but instead to recreate my experience in front of it, whatever that may be.” Her work is foremost about painting and its unique plastic language. Tonal relationships, gesture, and composition are the ascendant concerns in Nowinski’s process, and her work references Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, and Chaïm Soutine. “Painting and drawing are inseparable for me,” the artist says. “Each mark I make is drawn and painted. I paint without preconception.” Light is important to Nowinski, and she prefers the
February 2011 55

54 American Artist

About the Artist
Janice nowinski holds an M.F.A. from Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, and she studied with William Bailey, Andrew Forge, Vija Celmins, and Jake Berthot. She also studied at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture under Gretna Campbell and Mercedes Matter. She is currently a member and director of the Bowery Gallery. She was recently a visiting artist at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. Additionally, Nowinski has taught at Long Island University and has been a visiting artist-critic at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City, and Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Her next solo show is scheduled for the Bowery Gallery in 2011. For more information, visit

ShaROn YaTeS

gray light at the end of a day, when the tonal contrast is the strongest. Matisse once said, “I don’t paint things, I only paint the difference between things.” Nowinski follows this dictum, composing paintings by looking for relationships between the objects and always thinking of how these relate to the whole composition. Her working process can be best described as spontaneous and instantaneous. “I respond to what emerges,” she states. “If something interesting happens that has nothing to do with my original inspiration, I follow it.” The artist sets up a still life with similar objects each time; a neutral colored cloth, a pepper grinder, a knife, a fork, a metal bowl, green pears, apples, walnuts, and maybe a lemon. She likes working from familiar objects and rearranging them. “The objects don’t need to change because I do, as an artist,” she explains, adding that she often works on a still life for several months. As time progresses, she gets to know the setup and the painting. “Eventually, when an image emerges that matches the experience I had in front of it, I know I’m done,” she says. Besides still lifes, Nowinski paints self-portraits and transcriptions of masterworks. Her transcriptions are closely related to her still lifes. For example, when she copied the Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault, she felt that the figures were substitutes for still life objects and that the raft was a substitute for a tabletop. Nowinski prefers working on linen prepared with rabbit-skin glue and oil priming white and uses the Raphael Kaerell No. 10 synthetic brush. She notes that she uses one until it wears out, usually in a month, and then starts painting with another one. “They are like the poor man’s sable brush!” she says. “I like working with a small brush because I often make linear painting moves and I feel more connected to the marks on the canvas.”
56 American Artist

Like Miller and Kehoe, Sharon Yates sees a world alive with color harmonies. Mixed Flowers With Towel captures not only nature’s rich hues but also the bright light of a September day. Yates notes that the work was completed in one day. “It was painted outdoors in my yard where I picked the flowers,” she says, adding that during the summer she made 12 to 15 other paintings leading up to it. Yates prefers to paint outdoors. The weather determines her painting decisions, given its influence on the quality of light and the position of the flowers. Because of the constantly shifting wind (her studio faces the sea), she confronts unexpected changes at all times. She finds the movement caused by the wind both inspirational and nerve racking at the same time. “I tried taping the flowers to the glass containers but to no avail,” she says. The artist experiences conflicting impulses when selecting and positioning her flowers. That is, she is conscious of wanting to make formal decisions that achieve a balanced design, yet she also wishes to submit to chance and impulse. She works on a toned gray surface and begins painting by using neutral color to establish the main areas of the composition. n Advice Then comes full-bodied From Sharon Yates brushwork to translate ■ Intellectual curiosity, close observation of color self-confidence, and and form. She says that she intuition are essential. aims to interpret the colors ■ Instincts are reliable rather than to copy the tools for an artist. setup. Theories are not. Painting en plein air continues to inspire Yates. ■ Developing skills is es“I began painting flowers sential, as is knowledge outdoors in my garden of past masters and nearly 20 years ago, at about contemporary artists. the same time that I began ■ Learn and experiment painting cows in the landfreely as much as scape,” she says. “I continue possible. both subjects to this day. ■ Knowing what feels true They seem to satisfy my to oneself is the real need to deal with the unchallenge. predictable forces of nature. ■ Failed paintings are the I love being immersed in best teachers. the outdoors in spite of the difficulties.” Yates primarily paints with Winsor & Newton and Blockx oils and Silver Brush’s Grand Prix bristles (filberts and rounds). For small plein air paintings she uses archival Arches Cover paper stapled to a board. She primes her paper with two coats of Liquitex gesso followed by two coasts of matte medium. When her painting is complete, she removes it from the board and mounts it on a Masonite panel. ■
Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist.


About the Artist
Sharon Yates holds a B.F.A. from Syracuse University and an M.F.A. from Tulane University, in New Orleans. She has recently exhibited at First Street Gallery, in New York City; and at several galleries in Maine—Northern Tides, in Lubec, Dowling Walsh Gallery, in Rockland, and June Fitzpatrick Gallery, in Portland. Yates is an academician member at the National Academy, in New York City, and a professor emeritus at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore.

Mixed Flowers With Towel
by Sharon Yates, 2009, oil on panel, 10 x 11.

Reprinted from American Artist: Copyright © 2011 by Interweave Press, LLC. All rights reserved.

February 2011