Empty Aesthetics: Still Life and Memory in the works of Kaitlin Pomerantz

“imaginary gardens, real toads” – work by Kaitlin Pomerantz

Brodsky Gallery at Kelly Writer’s House

Through October 26th

By Manya Scheps



Memory is at the end of a painting, a stickiness that remains long after the landscape has morphed or the fruit has gone to waste.  Memory of the substance, of course, but more significantly, memory of the construction is what is left behind.  The painting takes root on a wall, indelibly altering the wall’s landscape with its armature.  Its significance is immediate: not for the message as much for the slightly radical effort we go through to suspend it.


Kaitlin Pomerantz’s show at the Brodsky Gallery at Kelly Writer’s House works around issues of memory, loss, and stillness.  The show, “imaginary gardens, real toads”, showcases Pomerantz’s Traces series.  The paintings and prints represent the landscape of a wall after the removal of a framed object, as well as the apparatuses of the walls themselves, in various stages of being finished.



Untitled (family photos), 2011, and Juan Sanchez Cotan’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602

The formal qualities of the work stretch across art history, calling to mind Josef Albers’s color explorations, Rothko’s fields of pigment, surrealism’s trompe-l’oeil, and a Kosuth-like pun of the multiple depictions of paintings inside painting.  But it is this idea of being finished which is at the center of the series.  The paintings grapple with temporality, both as historical motif and as its own problem within the frame.  Permanence is unresolved: though the walls have discolored and the images have vanished, the absence doesn’t feel absolute.  In eliminating certain objects from her depictions, Pomerantz has not emptied the composition — rather, she has created a still life without life.  Diametrically opposite a traditional still life painting, it is the lack of each object that has allegorical meaning and studied depth.  The viewers idolize the memory of the image, instilling significance in their own unknowing.


Pomerantz is well-versed in the history and practice of still life paintings.  I first encountered her work in the fall of  2011 at a show in the West Philadelphia Green Line Cafe.  Her Specimen Imaginary loomed over tables filled with laptops and lattes, larger-than-life figurations of decaying beets, banana peels, and handfuls of raw meat.  Working in the vein of sixteenth and seventeenth-century painting, Pomerantz gives individual objects an amplitude that is at once cosmic and irrelevant.  As one would a painting, she tacks objects to walls with nails that carry through to her Traces work.  Playing with the preservationist and didactic goals of Dutch breakfast and vanitas paintings, she captures objects in passages of decay.  The harsh and intense shadows seem to result from a languorous sun, the objects themselves slumped over in remembrance of themselves.


Untitled (beet and banana peel), 2010, and Jacopo de’ Barbari’s Still Life with Partridge and Iron Gloves, 1504
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s The Flayed Ox, 1655, and Meat, 2008


The paintings recall a past — both in their nods to predecessors of the form and in the implicit past of the objects themselves.  In her Traces series, the past is a main player, though temporal lines are blurred and distressed.  Still life painting traditionally seeks to conserve an object at its finest — at the height of Dutch Baroque painting, for instance, it was commonplace to find paintings of lobsters in households which could have never dreamt of actually affording to eat them.  The images were a fantasy of riches and perfection; didactic, yes, filled with warnings of death and vanity, but utterly pleasurable to behold.  As Gerard de Lairesse writes from his 1707 Great Book on Painting, “the Beauty and Goodness of a Still-life consists only in the most choice Objects: I say, the most choice; as, among Flowers, the most rare and beautiful, and the same in Fruits and other Things. These will gain a Master Credit, especially with the Addition of some particular Significations proper to them…We also suppose, that no Objects used in Still-life ought to represented less than the Life.”


While Realism would, centuries later, depict the very “rotten Fruit, Rubbish, Deformities of Nature” that de Lairesse despises, Pomerantz is not so unequivocal in her representation.  Her paintings teeter on a precipice, at once seeking to preserve the very forms she lets decay and vanish.  Her still life paintings are not an idealized present — rather, the present is the past.  She captures objects as they were, as they used to be: liminal moments before the lights turn off.


Though the show at Kelly Writers House has classical and traditional roots, it also rebuffs formality, opening up figuration to abstraction.  The paintings of empty frames seem realistic until they don’t: sun discoloring a wall would create an opposite effect than the one Pomerantz has painted – the wall around the frame would be lighter.  Her subtle reversal creates a vignette, the space where the frame once was is now a ghostly memorial.  The lightened space becomes an impression, falling in line with her work in printmaking.  As if family photos and mirrors were copper plates, Pomerantz presses them into the space of the canvas, forcing a recollection of ambiguous stories.



Untitled (mirror), 2011



Simultaneously peeling through and adding onto layers of forms, Kaitlin Pomerantz articulates empty spaces for paintings.  In doing so, creating arrangements of the platforms where artworks once were or never could be, she reaches through the history of the still life and questions the paradoxes of pure painting.  The compositions themselves are empty, but as viewers, we do not equate their quietness with total silence.  Pomerantz shapes loss without actually losing anything: vacancy without abandonment, signification without purport, splendor without riches.


Manya Scheps is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied fine arts. She is the editor of New Asshole and co-founded Talking Pictures, an art theory reading group, in West Philadelphia. Her critical focus is on DIY art, its production, and its social implications.