Title: Untitled, #49
Artist: Laura Letinsky (1962- )
Medium: Archival inkjet print
Credit Line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchase funds contributed by Lynn Hauser and Neil Ross; 2014.1k
Image Credit: Copyright by Laura Letinsky; February 27, 2015. Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery
Set in an interior space, a long, rectangular table covered by a white, wrinkled tablecloth expands across the bottom third of Laura Letinsky’s photograph, Untitled, #49. Atop the table, a tower of mottled peaches sits within a heavy, stone bowl, whose leaf-like forms barely contain the overflowing fruit. Upon a closer look, the peaches are at different stages of ripeness: some plump and juicy, others rotten and browned. Under the bowl is a large plastic cutting board that projects diagonally towards the viewer. Nearly a third of the board is unsupported off the back of the narrow table and the bowl itself is teetering off the edge. Remnants of an eaten peach lay atop the board and drops of crimson pigment traverse across the tablecloth. Just to the left of the board is a simple, white porcelain mug, dangling half-way off the back of the table, with a coffee stain ring on the interior. The soft tone of the light coming from the window on the left suggests that the image was captured at either dawn or dusk.
Untitled, #49 provides the viewer with an intimate glimpse at what could be a familiar kitchen scene—perhaps the forgotten leftovers from an earlier breakfast. Yet, this is, in fact, not a random scene, it is a meticulously staged photograph. The composition makes connections to the centuries old Western tradition of still-life painting, typically depicting luscious scenes laden with symbolism intended to remind the viewer of the passage of time, the futility of earthly pleasures, and their own mortality. In Untitled, #49, Letinsky draws inspiration from Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s oil painting, Basket of Peaches from 1768 (Gootenboer 2004, 8). The two works share many similarities, including a triangular composition formed by a cup and a tower of peaches.
Although Letinsky borrows the use of ordinary household objects from Chardin, her inclusion of spills, stains and visible signs of rotting is strikingly different. Hints of neglect are also implied in Basket of Peaches, but they suggest a more immediate human presence. While the mug in Letinsky’s piece is presumably empty and one of the peaches has been fully eaten, Chardin’s cup is still half full and the broken walnut to the right of the peaches has yet to be enjoyed. Furthermore, the knife in Chardin’s piece is placed carelessly, perhaps suggesting that in a moment someone will return to pick it up again. Letinsky surely was inspired by this rash display; yet her placement of multiple, fragile objects off the back side of the table seems more fraught than Chardin’s knife, which is wedged underneath the basket and less prone to breakage. Although the viewer instinctively knows that the objects in both pieces were staged, embedded in these images is an inherent tension, a feeling that at any moment the scene might come apart.
Traditional still-life paintings strive towards a certain realism, sometimes by employing trompe l’oeil—or eye fooling—effects that portray objects so perfectly that viewers are tricked into believing they are three dimensional. Untitled, #49 turns the table on the classic trompe l’oeil tradition by deceiving the viewer into thinking that the “real” objects captured by a camera may, in fact, be painted. Letinsky achieves a painterly quality with long exposure time —roughly twenty minutes— and low light sensitivity film, providing gradation of hues and dulled outlines (Grootenboer 2004, 6). These softening effects blur the perception that photography always captures a snapshot of reality and highlight the artificiality inherent in photographic scenes. By photographing a genre that is generally painted, Letinsky explores the degree of artifice in both mediums. This exploration allows the artist to challenge classic modes of painted realism, and to raise questions around the photographic cliché of freezing time.
Grootenboer, Hanneke. “The Posthumous Life of Leftovers: Photographs by Laura Letinsky.” In Hardly More than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004, fiction by Diane Willians, 6-23. Chicago: Renaissance Society, 2004.
— Contributed by Curatorial Intern, Mai Morsch (BA, Art History 2017)
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