Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Pretty and Nice

J Crist Gallery's still life show

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So much of reality is slovenly. Think of all the parking lots and all the old carpet, the tons and tons of dust, not to mention all the debris. There are odors. There are badly built sheds. There are ponds with scum on them. There are really stupid television shows and taupe cubicles. We all know a dentist with a hairpiece or a real estate agent who really shouldn't be wearing open-toed sandals. There's boredom. There's noise. There are used car lots. Why go on?

For centuries now, the genre of still-life painting has frequently been used as a meditation on the earth's delights, with great care taken to include none of its slovenliness. In some circles, this has given the genre the bad reputation of being just decoration. It's true that paintings of flowers aren't much consolation when it comes to the horrible things that happen in the world, or feelings of severe contingency, but they may do more than you might think. A painting of flowers, if it's done well, creates a setting for civility. Beautiful things set a certain tone. Imagine you're walking through a large city. Imagine all the concrete, with its thin film of grime. Restaurant employees have opened the steel doors in the sidewalk and are hauling bags of food waste up the stairs and making big piles in the gutter. Traffic is heavy. You turn the corner and see a small park ahead. Now, are you disappointed? Does the park seem frivolous and merely decorative, or does it seem necessary? Without their parks, cities wouldn't be as civilized, and what are parks but municipal still lifes?

The current show at J Crist Gallery is "Still Life with Objects" (through July 28) and more than anything, it seems to be about the appeal of nice things. The show includes paintings, watercolors, glass and jewelry. Just over a dozen artists are represented and the space is appropriately full, abundance being a common theme in the still life.

Jane Bunker's large paintings of flower arrangements create a nice centerpiece. Bunker uses a soft-focus effect that turns her arrangements into pure light. The colors glow and the highlights burn. In contrast to Bunker's soft-focus snapshots of passing beauty, Dan Scott's works are sharply focused studies of more enduring objects. Scott, a professor of painting at Boise State, appears to have a deep appreciation for the ways in which beauty is formalized through artistry. His paintings of elegant textiles and tableware are nice articulations of that appreciation. Kathleen Elliot offers flame-worked and sandblasted borosilicate glass fruits. Her plums hang from their branch with the weight of their ripeness, and her leaves have a kind of luxurious animation. The textures and organic details in the glass are well-realized and the colors are lush.

For fans of jewelry, a selection of pieces ("objects") by the now very famous duo Reinstein/Ross is on display--and there's even a love story involved. Back in the early '80s, Reinstein was part owner of a small jewelry store off the beaten path in SoHo, and an accomplished goldsmith. Ross was a marine biologist who liked to travel the world. While staying with a family of gem traders in Jaipur, India, Ross was inspired to invest his life savings of $5,000 in a bag of gemstones, which he sold in the United States upon returning. The success of his first attempt at gem trading took him to places like Cambodia and Thailand in search of more pretty rocks. Eventually, the goldsmith and the gem trader met and fell in love. The partnership has resulted in one of the most sought-after lines of jewelry on the contemporary scene. The pieces are all handmade and combine intricate Estruscan-inspired designs and uniquely tinted gold alloys in a clean contemporary package.

On the other end of the jewelry spectrum, the show includes pieces by Lee Hale, a California artist who uses slices of pencils and erasers in the place of precious stones to create her adornments. There's also some works by local favorite, Anika Smulovitz, an acclaimed silversmith. In this show, she has contributed some of her Specimen Rings, which are just what they sound like--rings set with small glass vials that hold plant specimens. In addition to the rings, Smulovitz has fashioned small silver stands on which they can be displayed. Along with the Specimen Rings are included some intricate and very lovely little objects called Plant Anatomy Keys.

It may be interesting to note that on the very ground where J Crist Gallery now stands, where its show so dedicated to things pretty and nice is on display, once stood a most slovenly used-car lot. Sure, it's sometimes necessary to go out and wander through a bunch of junky cars until someone talks you into buying a particular piece of junk car and then get in the junky car and go to a bad job, or maybe you don't make it to your lousy job because the car is a piece of junk. But let's not forget, going to look at nice things that are beautiful can also be necessary.