Justine Reyes' Contemporary Take on "Vanitas"

Post by Lin VanderVliet

There's a running joke between me and a best friend where we punctuate moments of existential despair with proclamations of "memento mori!" We might shout it out of nothingness, or point at some obvious symbolism of death or decay and then reflect upon its utterance almost mockingly and with giggles.

I'd say neither of us gets the seriousness underneath our laughter, until it becomes replaced by the silence that hangs in its wake, and we realize we're choking on the reminder that one day we will die. It's a humor that mostly succeeds in revealing a shared naiveté—i.e. our attempt to comprehend death in our early twenties, when youthful exuberance appears unending.

Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas (1671)

I imagine photographer Justine Reyes could sympathize. Inspired by the rich tradition of still life painting in 17th century Dutch art, Reyes, who was only in her early thirties while working on the project in 2010, provides a current-day take on meditative still lifes in her series, "Vanitas." Here a series of delicate tablescapes laid out with exquisite painterly appeal are transformed into excessively polished photographs. The scenes depicted are vibrant, lush and rich, with objects appearing petrified in place and glossed over with a lacquer-y substance. Populating the compositions are items we wouldn't find within any 17th century home, displayed in a context of suggested importance as emphasized through heavy backdrops and soft, global lighting. Crumpled cellophane, a painted tin lunchbox, plastic crates and an overturned cylinder of salt still in its store-bought container, each represent unremarkable consumer-based items, which through exaltation have been subsumed into the realm of vanitas.

Still Life with Salt, 2010 © Justine Reyes

Still Life with Cup & Melon, 2010 © Justine Reyes

Hans Boulenger, Tulips in a Vase, 1639 

Though still lifes are traditionally defined as "composition[s] of motionless objects, painted by the artist from life," those in the tradition of Dutch painting—as realistic and deceptively imitative as they appear—are not happened upon, but instead carefully and purposefully staged1. Intended to arouse pangs of existential realization through the reminder of life's transience, popular themes of flowers and banquets are perfectly composed—with the former often grouping together species that bloom in different seasons.2 The "still lifes" are in other words composites, whose arranged scenes could never be naturally observed or documented.3

Reyes' photographs function similarly, in that they're pieced together "intuitively," as she describes it, combining personally owned objects with historically significant items once belonging to the artist's grandmother.4 Like the half-eaten display of a breakfast piece, disheveled through the exercise of consumption, her compositions are plentiful but barren, revealing everything from the exposed viscera of a pomegranate to the sagging interior of a suitcase filled with plates.

Still Life With Plates, 2010 © Justine Reyes

While the images that comprise Vanitas appear as contemporaries to their Baroque equivalents, closer inspection reveals the process behind Reyes' work, namely the production of mysterious relationships between the artifacts displayed and the context through which they are shown. Though as viewers we're left to speculate as to the significance (or lack thereof) of each object, Reyes claims that the pairings are intended to suggest themes of "memory, familial legacy, and the passage of time."5 It is the use of Reyes' personal symbolism that distinguishes her work as less legible than that of her inspiration, and instead of relying upon our knowledge of given symbols, she depicts her scenes of decay more ambiguously and, at times, comically. It's a crude humor that interrupts the scene between a decorative cup and a halved melon with Saran Wrap, or a crystal glass filled with plums beside two produce containers.6 In Still Life with Tea Set, Picture Frame & Cake, it's the plastic fork knowingly poised at the edge of a dessert plate and the exaggerated stack of teacups that bend from behind it like a contorted spine.7

Still Life with Tea Set, Picture Frame & Cake, 2010 © Justine Reyes

While traditional still life compositions often include common sights such as torn loaves of bread, bowls topped with fruit, half-eaten pies and tablecloths littered with crumbs and nuts, "Vanitas" differs slightly. Reyes' compositions are comparably less lavish in their display. Instead of dazzling our eyes with an appetizing showcase of table remnants, her scenes are far simpler, placing the spotlight on no more than three, sometimes four objects at a time, as well as acting more humorously with less allegorical motivation.

Still Life with Cabbage & Knife, 2010 © Justine Reyes

For example, the knives in Reyes' "Vanitas" are less menacing, but more emotionally despairing than those of her Dutch predecessors. They are isolated, and easy to locate within the scene, where we can decipher the teeth of a serrated blade and the dull gleam of a butter knife next to an exhausted head of cabbage. Reyes' emphasis on life and death employs none of the scare tactics which might've inspired Johannes van der Beeck to illustrate a scene of allegorical temperance, combining a pitcher, jug and filled glass with the most dour warning, scrawled in the form of sheet music.8

Instead, the interactions within "Vanitas" are more anthropomorphically choreographed, with conversations taking place between scarred tabletops and ceramic birds, dried fish skeletons and sectioned oranges. Through cracked, broken and used objects, Reyes' simplicity simulates a near bodily response by way of discarded egg shells, half-eaten bananas and wilting flowers—all of which echo in the form of physically corresponding evocations. The variation in color, shape and texture of the photographed items helps to inspire small-scale versions of competing sensations ranging from calm to uneasiness.  Everything reflects upon the innate desire to preserve what lies beyond our grasp and Reyes achieves this without attempting to occupy any moral high ground, thus making the series ache with a particular blend of sadness and knowing absurdity.

Johannes van der Beeck, Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, 1614

Reyes' focus on particular objects is inherently tied to her personal memory and associations, almost to the point of impenetrability. I can't help but think of the line from "Civilian" by the Baltimore indie duo, Wye Oak: "I still keep my baby teeth in the bedside table, with my jewelry/You still sleep in the bed with me, my jewelry, and my baby teeth," which acknowledges the depth of personal attachment and ritual we ascribe to objects. Applying the lyric to Reyes' images, I view her juxtapositions in much the same way, such as when comparing the peeled skin of a grapefruit to its neighboring tray of citrus colored buttons. Just as the severity of keeping you in bed with my (human) teeth becomes softened by the absurd realization they are baby teeth, there is a clash between maturity and juvenile tenderness at play. Reyes' arrangements simulate the desire to desperately preserve a certain innocence, where hard plastic supplants soft fruit, replacing what is most likely to decay with a more unyielding product. 

Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Gilt Goblet, 1635

Still Life with Cup & Melon, 2010 © Justine Reyes

After taking the time to cycle through the entire series of "Vanitas" on Reyes' website, I would argue that some of the images communicate their intentions more effectively than others, with the stronger photographs being those which function less severely and more humorously, distinguishing themselves as contemporary takes on an old tradition. These images are typically those that appear less overtly beautiful and more self-aware, such as the one below, featuring two ceramic birds observing a halved pomegranate as though discussing evidence of a crime; the birds fully inhabit the scene they possess and activate it through the aide of their gestures. While this opinion may have something to do with my personal fondness for imposing human-like qualities on inanimate objects, such wit is effective beyond simply inspiring a laugh. Achieving her goal with less austerity and obvious symbolism than her Dutch predecessors, Reyes' desire to capture what cannot be succinctly possessed mimics the same belief in acknowledging death, instability and the fragility of life through knowing and humorous realization. 

Still Life with Pomegranate and Birds, 2010 © Justine Reyes

Lin VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work seeks to promote a sense of  underlying anxiety by combining photographs with typed text. Reoccurring themes include: a fascination with performance, absurdity, the uncanny and expressions of personal catharsis. Currently, she lives in New Jersey.

1 Judikje Kiers and Fieke Tissink, The Golden Age of Dutch Art: Painting, Sculpture, Decorative Art (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2000), 69.
2 Ibid., 71.
3 Ibid., 71.
4 Rosecrans Baldwin, "Going Dutch: Justine Reyes," The Morning News, February 23, 2010, http://www.themorningnews.org/gallery/going-dutch
5 Ibid.
6 "Justine Reyes," Beautiful/Decay, February 26, 2010, http://beautifuldecay.com/2010/02/26/justine-reyes/
7 Ibid.
8 Judikje Kiers, 74.