With ordinary objects, artist Laura Letinsky instills - and questions - photographic desire

February 7, 2012

Historically the still life has been considered a “debased genre” – less important, say, than the portrait or the landscape. This hierarchy is reflected in the artwork’s sale price, with still lifes fetching less money than other genres.

There have been, however, moments in history when the still life has come into prominence. The 17th century, for example, when Dutch masters gave us opulent tablescapes overladen with oysters, ripe fruit and sides of meat. Or the latter half of the 20th century, when Wayne Thiebaud gave us cakes and Claes Oldenburg gave us clothespins. Still lifes catch our eye in periods of time when images of objects clustered together have embodied something about the current culture that makes them relevant and resonant.

Photographer Laura Letinsky thinks that we’re in another such moment where the still life is ascendant.

All you have to do, she says, is look at the plethora of lifestyle magazines stuffed to the brim with glossy photos of meticulously laid out, Martha Stewart-esque dinner tables and ads for shiny new iPods. Or scan countless food and home decor blogs that document every lamp, every refurbished desk, every jar of jam, every room arranged in pristine fashion. Right now, it seems, we really want to look at beautiful images of beautiful objects made for us to consume.

Asking why, and exploring her own love-hate relationship with these images of domestic perfection, are what have driven Letinsky’s work since she began making still life photographs in 1997.

Letinsky says she wants to undermine and challenge what she sees as the “promise” of these images. Rather than show us a “cornucopia awaiting the viewer’s appetite,” she wants to show us the discarded, the spoiled and the left-over. In her images, flowers have wilted, drinks have been spilled, fruit has rotted—in short, the party is over. Letinsky wants to question the promise of perfection and possession held in not just still life photos, but in every photographic image.

You can explore her work in the video above, or see it for yourself starting tonight: Her first solo museum show opens Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of their Chicago Works series. She’ll also have photos on display at Feast, a food and hospitality-themed exhibit that opens at the Smart Museum on Feb. 16.

Art/Work features contemporary visual artists exhibiting in Chicago talking about the inspiration and perspiration behind their creative endeavors. Chicago Works: Laura Letinsky opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and runs through April 17, 2012. The MCA is a station partner of WBEZ. Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art runs at the Smart Museum of Art from Feb. 16 through June 10, 2012.