Jennifer Steinkamp’s Still-Life Drives Us To Ask: Can Art Be Both Beautiful And Critical?

Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.
Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.
Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.
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In her second solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong outpost, Jennifer Steinkamp’s immersive video art coaxes us to look within ourselves.

 

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong

Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.

 

There is risk to making art that is too ‘pretty’ in the 21st century. After all, much of modern art is about breaking away from representations of the ideal beauty towards the human experience, which, as we know, isn’t only good, but also bad and ugly. Jennifer Steinkamp’s art is very beautiful. A pioneer in 3D animation art, the American artist is known for a technically exquisite oeurve that defies easy art historical classification. While some of her works reminds one of Dutch and Flemish still life paintings, others are reminiscent of 1960s abstract expressionist works. At the heart of them all appear to be desire to render nature in its perfect state.

The artist uses 3D modeling software and Photoshop to draw, paint and animate individual elements in her works. The results are hypnotizing tapestries that toe the line between reality and artifice. In 2014, Steinkamp made her Hong Kong debut at Lehmann Maupin with “Diaspore,” an exhibition that drew parallels between the dispersal of seeds and the phenomenon of diaspora. For her second solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong outpost, Steinkamp presents three stunning immersive video installations that take over the gallery space and have been created for projection in response to the specific dimensions of the walls. Titled “Still-Life”, the quietly cheerful exhibition offers a sanctuary from the hustle of the city.

Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.

 

Even before entering the gallery, one’s eyes are directed past the glass doors of the gallery towards Retinal 2 (2018). The clusters of amorphous colourful blobs and ribbons recall, the press release says, ‘acidic coloration of candy,’ but the caption reveals them to be depictions of optical veins. And thus, nature and the man-made, the artificial and the human coalesce.

At the back of the gallery is Still-Life (2016–19). As the name implies, the work takes direct inspiration from 1960s Dutch and Flemish still life paintings yet gives the fruits the animated treatment. Apples, lemons and pears, perfectly contoured and coloured, float across the canvas, their seeds spilling out in bountiful glee, suddenly the frame freezes, the animation rewinds, and the entire process begins again.

Meanwhile, Blind Eye 2 (2019) depicts a pair of birch trees through the four seasons, where extending branches pierces the dark background, and leaves multiply on the tree, which is swaying, at times gently, at times fiercely, until all the leaves fall. And then the cycle begins again. The work is part of Blind Eye (2018), a larger piece comprising a suite of birch trees, inspired by those outside the Clark Art Institute in the United States where Steinkamp held a major exhibition last year. Of the three pieces on display in “Still-Life,” Blind Eye 2 is perhaps the most mesmerizing, in part perhaps because there does appear to be notions of life and death, though like the other two, the animation never stops. One could just stare at it all day, until the leaves become like eyes, and we’re slightly taken aback by the shift—quite literally—in perspective, as if we’re the objects that the art is looking at. At one point, the tree behaves less like a tree, more like the personalization of human emotions in all its sweetness, fury, desolation and hope.

Jennifer Steinkamp, Still-Life Installation view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, September 19 – October 26, 2019. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong.

 

And perhaps that’s why Steinkamp’s art touches us. For the artist, aesthetics dominates academic jargons. Her art doesn’t attempt to force intellectual analysis upon its viewers—as with so much of contemporary art—but rather stun us with its beauty. And yet, the more time you spend in front of it, the more you realize that her art goes beyond being a pretty canvas. Her art is a reflection on the cyclical nature of life, as a critique of how technology has accelerated contemporary life. Just as the Dutch and Flemish still life paintings were never just about the faithful reproduction of beautiful objects, but instead addresses the way human beings view their objects, the exuberance and recurring nature of Steinkamp’s animations appear to point to certain human experiences.

 

Jennifer Steinkamp: Still-Life
19 September – 26 October, 2019
Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong

 

 

About the artist
Jennifer Steinkamp (b. 1958, Denver, CO; lives and works in Los Angeles) received her BFA and MFA from Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California in 1989 and 1991, respectively, and an honorary PhD in 2011. Solo exhibitions of her work have been organized at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA (2018); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO (2017); Portland Art Museum, OR (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA (2016 and 2011); McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX (2016); Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX (2012 and 2014); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, MO (2013); the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NE (2013), among others.

Select group exhibitions and biennials featuring her work include Virtual Views: Digital Art from the Thoma Foundation, Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, TN (2017); Nature Morte: contemporary artists reinvigorate the still- life tradition, Bohusläns Museum, Uddevalla, Sweden (2016); Momentum: An Experiment in the Unexpected, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA (2014); Turning Inside Out: Video Art by Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, and Jennifer Steinkamp, Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, NE (2012); Blink! Light, Sound and the Moving Image, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO (2011), among others.

Her work can be found in numerous public and private collections internationally, including the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; The National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Istanbul Museum, Turkey; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN; Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, FL; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.

 

 


 

Christie Lee is an arts journalist. Her articles have been published in Frieze, Artsy Editorial, Yishu, Randian, Artomity and The Peak magazine. A graduate of McGill University, she lives in London and Hong Kong.

 

 
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