The Magazine

Ordinary Art

A new appreciation for the maestro of the commonplace.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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To emphasize the poignance, two spice packets lie chastely side by side in the foreground, each twisted at the ends to suggest heads and feet. Or tail feathers. One lifeless pairing echoes another. On one level, Still Life with Fish, Bread, and a Knife (c. 1772) is a plainspoken inventory of the ingredients for a meatless Lenten meal. But in the land of Cervantes, luxuriantly devoted to soldiering, the position of that shining sea bream insinuates a fallen guerrero. Propped improbably on its tail, atop a knife and slumped against an overturned soup pot, the fish--mailed in lustrous scales--impersonates a wounded knight. The knife handle is visible on the fish's left; the blade shows on the right, a charade of impalement. A pink fin, dark red in shadow, mimics a bloody gash. The ensemble is a teasing blend of cultural emblem with genuine feeling for the thing-in-itself.

The vanitas theme threads through the exhibition just as it does through the history of still life. Meléndez's work is a theater of delight in organic form--that heart-stopping cauliflower! a bliss of figs!--but the shadow of memento mori passes over it nonetheless. References to mortality peek from behind the veil of natural description. What is that shattered watermelon, glistening red flesh spilling onto the ground of a darkling landscape, if not an intimation of death on the run? Elsewhere, decay is not far off in bruised, overripe apples and pears. The pity of maturation.

Sly tension between depiction and suggestion exists in several end-of-dinner motifs that include narrow boxes of sweets. Pictorially, these rectangular forms register lighting effects and provide counterpoint to rounded volumes. They also function metaphorically: Made of rough scrap wood, they resemble stacks of coffins. Visible at the corner of one is a bit of wrapper. A hint of winding cloth? Instead of the customary skull, worm, or hourglass, Meléndez features--in miniature--the plain pine box that beckons us all.

Viewed from the narrow angle of our own era, Luis Meléndez exhibits certain pictorial concerns similar to modernist ones. Here are those spatial ambiguities that our own eyes are conditioned to admire. (Is there really room for that bulk on such a narrow shelf?) Eager to show Meléndez in a modern light, the exhibition catalogue flourishes a Morandi still life for comparison. Yet it is precisely Meléndez's distance from modernity that is arresting. His sensibility thrived on the continuity of cultural memory. He worked, as did his contemporaries, in anticipation of discernible meaning and trustful of its reception. His produce medleys are loyal to the seasons; and his unifying theme of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) assumes an audience whose cultural field extended back, however fitfully, to Empedocles.

Meléndez's repertory of enduring forms--the spoon, jar, bowl, and beaker, together with pantry stuffs--is still with us, triumphant over generational time. In the rhythms and transmitted rituals of meal preparation lies the divide between brute existence and civilized life. So much depends on fresh cauliflower and a loaf of bread.

Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New Criterion and other publications.