The seduction of still life is lost in the vast history of art, as is the heated debate triggered by this genre of painting. It’s a never-ending topic, just like subjugation. Given that the process of thinking about art refuses to obey rules other than its own, it often tends to lag behind the leaps and bounds of creative development. While art advances ahead of existing prejudices, pride often blinds reason and emotions.
Still life paintings document the history of culture. They are testimonies to changes in mindsets and ways of thinking and acting. The objects that are selected within the genre belong to specific semantic fields, such as private or family scenarios, pleasure, leisure or decoration. But they also relate to moments of contemplation such as vanitas, momento morti, the passage of time and death.
Latin American art has tended to overlook the genre and only a few visionaries considered it to be an inexhaustible type art. These visionaries included Diego Rivera (Mexico); Claudio Bravo’s bundles of objects (Chile); the boxes and mirrors painted by Santiago Cárdenas (Colombia); Amelia Peláez’s laid tables and Julio Larraz’s pared-down images (Cuba). In Venezuela there are two key proponents: Marcos Castillo and José Antonio Dávila. Castillo (Caracas, 1897-1966) studied the Cézannian theme in depth and ultimately pared down his border-less compositions using such thin layers of paint that his works resembled watercolors. I will only refer to the works I consider most important in this text, for thence come the followers, and finally the plagiarists, who are under the arrogant misconception that they have some kind of gift. On the contrary, their premise should be humility and their focus should be on content and technique, for these are the key aspects of the genre of still life.
In José Antonio Dávila’s work (New York, 1935), the work of Sánchez Cotán is brought to mind, as could also be the case with Cézanne. However, while using these two artists as his starting point, Dávila creates a different dimension to his work that does not follow universal laws.
It is impossible to walk by one of Dávila’s works without being affected by their mystery. They reveal metaphors of an insightful vision of reality in which conscious and subconscious needs merge with social experiences. Colors and forms come together to create harmony and balance, but a secret tension also comes into play.
Dávila captures the spectator’s attention with these pieces. Viewers tend to think they know what they want to look at and what they do not. To defend himself, the artist constantly presents surprising scenes where the viewer feels he is seeing things for the very first time. And as the viewer’s gaze is always somewhat distracted, the artist sets up a trap for him.
In this sense, faced with “the eye’s indolence” the artist administers the antidote of the “trompe-l’oeil“. He presents excessively detailed objects on thoroughly simple backdrops. Along with a dramatic play of unreal light and shadow, which disconcerts the viewer, and flat backgrounds. There are also some enigmas: blackboards, chalk, mathematical formulae and cats that watch us. A dream-like feel can be sensed in impossible planes and vegetables that, in some cases, appear to be levitating. These are not chance compositions. The human eye is used to everyday reality and is not suited to taking in inventive, surprising compositions. Dávila takes fruit from its habitual space and implants it in an unreal, mental space. He turns us into “slaves of illusion”. He disconcerts us and makes us think.
These works are captivating and seductive. Nobody would think of reflecting on an orange’s sensuality or the fascination of a box that any normal person would throw out in the trash. The tensions between a butterfly that suggests the present and the fleetingness of time. Nobody would imagine the idea that we must vanquish the assault of consumerism by looking at urban detritus.
Dávila’s work is also implicitly charged with humanistic protest. The artificiality of the outer world versus the genuine nature of the inner world. The imprint left by the objects that surround us. Memory on a blurry blackboard. The hope of the future in the chalk of knowledge. The fruit that hangs from a thread, like our chance-filled lives. The enduring quality of science and the arts. The terrifying solitude of man who takes refuge in himself. A drama that speaks of the silent theater of the mind.
All these factors combine to make us marvel at José Antonio Dávila’s painting. Rather than painting, what we are faced with is soul. And it is the soul that makes us inquire, time and again, into the mystery of how, after so many centuries, still life is a topic that is never exhausted.