For many, the phrase “Flemish painter” sparks immediate associations with Vermeer, van Eyck, Rubens, and Brueghel the Elder and with the lush still-lifes and dark portraits of the Old Masters. Fortunately, as illustrated by the contemporary Belgian painter Cindy Wright, the tradition is hardly dead.
Indeed, it’s easy to spot the continuations of familiar themes and styles in Wright’s latest show “Glamoured by Decay,” which opens today at De Buck Gallery in New York. Like many of the most celebrated painters of the so-called Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish painting, Wright excels at the moody still life, often selecting objects from the natural world as her subjects. Human skulls take center stage in several of the exhibition’s featured pieces, including Collector Items and Diamonds and Pearls (all works 2015). In the latter, along with two other works, Loretta and Red Mohawk, Wright’s skulls are topped with decorative headpieces or, in the case of Loretta, a giant insect.
The juxtaposition of dead and alive is startling; it’s sinister and comical all at once. It might be read as a modern spin on one of the Old Masters’ favorite traditions, vanitas—a style of still life in which objects refer to a larger theme—and, perhaps more particularly, memento mori, Latin for “reminder of death,” in which skulls, or other symbols of human mortality, serve as a reminder that death is universal and inevitable.
The ominous reminder of certain death is a thread that weaves through all of the works in the show. Wright’s luscious Red Delicious depicts a rotting apple, at once beautiful and grotesque, the ripe flesh suggestive of the fruit’s previous beauty. Her vibrant birds and butterflies are either dead, as in I Cloud, or skewered—literally pinned to the wall with dozens of sharp needles—in Fashion Victim. The delicate fawn of Once Upon a Time, in heartbreaking reference to a children’s fairy tale, is curled up submissively beneath a glass dome.
There’s no escaping the comparison with Wright’s famous forebears: even her choice of material, oil on linen, falls in line with tradition. But “Glamoured by Decay” has a crispness, a freshness, and a few modern details—note the cardboard box in Collector Items—that reminds the viewer that these paintings were created in 2015. Years go by, but the theme of mortality remains so vital, and so mildly shocking, that we can expect Flemish painters to still be working with it a few centuries down the road.
By Bridget Gleeson | Artsy