Vanitas-style still lifes, when they first bloomed in the oils and temperas of the 14th- and 15th-century Flemish masters, showed the kind of macabre density we link today with untrained visionary artists. But while the overrun of symbols seen in outsider art is often the product of divine obsession, these older image-laden paintings, also fruitful during the Italian Renaissance, were the work of careful assembly.
Skulls, sour fruit, wilted flowers, sprung timepieces, and other ripe debris were heaped on stone tables or brocade-draped desks. The clustered subject matter was meant to evoke the cruelly swift and changeful nature of life — the vanity of clinging to physical objects when everything, chiefly the human body, is fated for decay.
“In life there is death,” says glass artist Sarah Mizer of Virginia. And even at its best, that life “is sweet and bitter.” That’s why, she adds, “the polarizing themes in vanitas still lifes underlay completely beautiful imagery.” For her own work in the genre, she picked vegetation past its prime to represent the bones of seasonal bloom. But she carries the theme with minimalism instead of using the traditional ornate array of items, shadowboxing her botanical symbols in frozen white.
The artist has exhibits and presentations planned in New York, Paris, and Canada this year. Meanwhile, she will usher in the artistic era of local Crate Wine Market + Project, the upscale tasting room/gallery in Laurel Park. Owner Derek Coté says the space will eventually have a strictly avant-garde focus. However, he adds, “Sarah’s work is conceptual enough that it bridges the gap between contemporary fine art and contemporary fine craft.”
Mizer’s spare, crisp tableaus, created during her recent residency at Penland School of Crafts, are crystallized in glass that reads like ice. “I was at Penland in January, so the imagery is droopy, cold, and a little anemic,” she says. “These nostalgic bouquets have lofty intentions. I present hopeful — yet sterile — vignettes of things to come, and some things that have been lost.
“In this work I celebrate, maybe a little too earnestly, my fleeting friendships with these plant friends — and, by proxy, their home.”
“Of Most Excellent Fancy,” featuring the work of Sarah Mizer, is on display at Crate Wine Market + Project (100 Daniel Drive, Laurel Park) and runs through March, with a closing reception on Saturday, April 1. For more information, call 828-696-3283 or visit cratenc.com.