i’m opening a show of paintings by cornelius völker…
In this survey of work made over the last fifteen years, Cornelius Völker’s oeuvre reveals a uniquely contemporary investigation of the history of representational painting, based primarily on exploration of the forms of the portrait and still life.
By rendering subjects that have been used by painters for centuries to exhibit their prowess—hair, hands, flesh, fabrics, edibles, glass—Völker flirts with historical precedents as diverse as Renaissance portraiture, the 17th century Dutch still life, the photography of Fredrick Sommer and Richard Avedon and the paintings of Édouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, Giorgio Morandi, Gerhard Richter, Wayne Thiebaud and Ed Ruscha. Völker delights in the push-pull of composition and decomposition as much as the sensuality of his media.
Before photography, having your portrait painted was the only way of preserving a life-like image after your death. Every item of apparel, every object that appeared in the representation, was chosen to memorialize the personality, values and social status of the sitter. Still life painting, during what was arguably its apex—the Netherlands in the 17th century—used an equally loaded vocabulary of objects: exotic fruits, intricately woven or embroidered textiles, Venetian glass and elaborate silver, chosen not only for their aesthetic appeal, but for their symbolic meaning.
Völker’s works blur those traditions, each painting becoming both a still life and a portrait. The back of a woman’s head, with an elaborate coiffure, is a coil of rope or a golden loaf of twisted bread. Isolated in a painterly void, a stack of books reads as a standing figure while art catalogues splayed open, pages bristling with Post-It bookmarks, recline like Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
Whether literally figurative or not, nearly every work that Völker paints relates to the body. Pills and ointments are made to ingest or rub onto the skin to heal, extend life or revive the appearance of youth. Cocktails are swilled; apples gnawed; butts are the detritus of the proverbial post-coital cigarette.
When Völker paints puddles of berry of jam, he could also be rendering splatter patterns from a crime scene. Or representing the stained sheets of a wedding bed, displayed after a royal marriage. Artists have always delighted in representing textiles, but in Völker’s hands, clothing litters the floor, torn in ardor from the lover’s body.
Glistening oysters, in their similarity to female genitalia, refer to the origin of their alleged power as aphrodisiacs as well to Dutch painters’ use of sumptuous foods as symbols of carnal pleasures and the brevity of life. The stub end of a candle, sputtering in a pool of wax, reminds us of Macbeth‘s soliloquy and that life’s ultimate conclusion is entropy and death.
Despite our efforts to cheat time, no matter how alive we feel today, we exist in a world of slippery deterioration.