Friday, August 17, 2007

Craig Stephens: Feather


This feather has personality. It reminds me of a willful Pekinese that owns the whole couch while sitting on the edge. It occupies the bare surface with pride and miniature stately gravitas; which is surprising considering its notorious weight. One knows that it can be blown away by the weakest waft, yet somehow it is hard to believe and to accept that fact. Thus this feather invokes an emotional response, empathy, a refreshing crossover for an inanimate object (though perhaps the animate origin plays a role here too) -- and eventually for the artist -- to achieve.

As often happens in minimalistic compositions, a simple, binary decryption ensures probably the most effective viewing experience: feather vs. the background, vs. its own shadow, vs. the chicken; the two colors of the feather, the two different materials that make it up, the soft touch of one vs. the pointy tip of the other, and so on and so forth. This is the basic form of compiling data that later can be used to substantiate allegory and symbolic meanings. In a way, the depicted object resembles a piece of evidence placed on a sterile surface to keep it from being contaminated. And it has already been said that the interpreter's job replicates that of a detective.

So what do we have here, ladies and gentlemen? Exhibit A, a feather collected from a battered chicken (read the witness' report from July 18th), it prompts to ponder the relationship between predators and their prey, and make conclusions about nature's cruel ways. The next step is to consider human efforts to control and redirect animals' rabid instincts, mostly by domestication. However, since human nature itself can be extremely violent, it needs a token of refined culture as a constant restraint: the feather again, a writing instrument during hundreds of years of Western civilization, it symbolizes the arts and their taming effect.

But one doesn't have to drift in the direction of symbolism, and perhaps interpretation is altogether unnecessary. While looking at this painting, I found enjoyment in simply recalling known uses of feathers: native Americans' headgear, filling for pillows, a material used for corporeal punishment, writing instruments (though usually made of geese feathers), currency -- just to mention a few. I think this piece proves how powerful the genre of still-life can be: an accidental found object is revealed to touch so many spheres of human activity and thought simply by being put on canvas. It tickles me to have missed this before.

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