[In September 2020, I began a series of blog entries discussing the themes and inspirations of my dark chamber-pop album Best Dead Masterpiece, scheduled for release on BandCamp in January 2021.]
I’ll devote this final part to discussing the importance of still lifes to the album. The cover is a detail from a 17th-century still life, the first song is called Still Life, and images of “dead life” appear throughout the songs.
-The speaker in my songs has always been someone possessed of potential energy. Who painted fantasies of fame, power, and influence as an exercise to allow speculation on the possible consequences. However, they never made moves to seize the sort of power contemplated. (I should acknowledge here that on my last album, the speaker was more of a character, and with this album there is little to no separation between the speaker and myself.) This time around the speaker considers whether they have been excessively reticent – that is, squandered their best years in a holding pattern – so opportunity has now passed. The still life, with its objects that seem poised on the brink of something but that remain frozen in time, seemed a good vehicle to discuss the proverbial missed chance.
-Still lifes, particularly of the vanitas variety, were reminders of the impermanence of sensual pleasures and the imminence of death. This seemed a fitting compliment to my songs, which are consistently existential and mortality-aware, even mortality-obsessed. Whereas I do not subscribe to Protestant tenets in general, I do connect with this sentiment from the article linked above: “It is placing our vanities in contrast with our eventual demise. It is appealing to something which can humble us in our treatment of the world, and those around us.” In fact, this is a core idea of the whole artistic venture that is The Sold Kingdom. I also like the notion that the limited color palette and single light sources of some of these paintings reflect their singlemindedness, their fixation on one thing and one thing only. Obviously though, like the rich and detailed vanitas paintings, my album could easily be viewed as an indulgent vanity object in itself, which is a contradiction I enjoy.
-Still lifes were at the bottom of the figurative-art “hierarchy of genres” throughout the 1700s and 1800s, which endears them to me more, given that I am an unabashed lover of “trash” art… whether that is outsider art, “guilty pleasure” art divorced from worry about sophistication or trendiness, or literally art made out of trash – refuse made beautiful. Part of this was that they veered away from idealism and toward realism, which makes them totally my jam.
Willam Claesz Heda, the painter of the still life that appears on my album cover [Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631)], has been discussed as follows by Web Gallery of Art:
In the early 1630s Heda began to use the compositional structures developed by Nicolaes Gillis and Floris van Dijck. Unlike those artists, however, he placed the white tablecloth on the left or right-hand edge of the table, so that the middle of the table is not covered and is no longer symmetric. In subsequent ‘banketjes’ (banquet pieces), the tablecloth was pushed further and further aside – as early as 1638 in Heda’s paintings – until it was actually crumpled. Whereas for quite some time food was shown as almost untouchable, precious and just for display, increasing traces of consumption are now visible. The objects were no longer merely intended to embody status-defining values, but became evidence of spontaneous acts which disrupted the festive structures of the framework.
It’s the askew-ness I like – the eeriness of the negative space caused by the asymmetry. I also appreciate Heda’s move toward disruption – how objects in his work go from being mere passive ornaments to indicators of activity, imperfection, even chaos – as I strive to take more chances as an artist and collaborator, and to resist formula/break new ground with my musical compositions.
Finally – I’ve always liked how inanimate objects in still lifes so often look personified, confrontational, whether from their symbolic weight or simply because the painter’s unwavering focus is turned on them. In film, poetry, photography, painting, I’ve always dug the elevation, or at least the recasting, of the banal. Especially in ways that are disarming or unsettling. It’s as if these fixtures of the everyday are daring you to take them for granted.
There’s little to no chance that I’m going to meet this deadline, but since I made this, we can pretend: