Still-Life Memories of Sweden

We’re excited to have a new crop of Park Pictures along the greenway! As you may remember, three billboards, commissioned by the Museum to encourage visitors to actively explore the Museum Park, are installed twice a year along the paved walking trails. These large-scale outdoor pictures are created by artists from around the country and link art with the natural world.

This time around artist Lydia Anne McCarthy created three images in conjunction with the Still Life Masterpieces exhibition. McCarthy, a graduate of the UNC–Chapel Hill MFA program, spent the past year living and working in Sweden. Her desire to return to Sweden, to the people, culture, and landscape that she fell in love with, informs the billboards she created. The work is an homage to her time spent exploring the landscape, a manifestation of her desire to return, and a recognition of the impossibility of longing.

In her photographs McCarthy evinces her memories of “wandering through the forest to pick berries and mushrooms; stray reindeer roaming the highways; and the stark rugged terrain spotted with lakes and filled with wildflowers,” but, forced into existence, they have decayed. McCarthy makes reference to traditional still-life paintings, as well as the tropes of advertising and studio photography, causing a disconnect between the beauty and allure of the form and the unappealing objects depicted within. The form produces an expectation of desire, but the content is undesirable, thus “creating tension between what is photographed and how it is photographed.”

McCarthy’s photographs are also steeped in the tradition of vanitas, a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. Vanitas symbolizes the inevitability of death and the transience and hubris of earthly achievements and pleasures. Skulls, rotten fruit, mirrors, and scholarly objects are often signposts of this tradition. Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s Vanitas Still Life (1668), with its skull, broken lyre, papers, and nearly burnt-out candle, and John Frederick Peto’s Student’s Materials (circa 1890–1900), depicting a book with its cover dangling by a thread and melted candle, are excellent examples of the vanitas tradition in Still-Life Masterpieces. The molding strawberries and cheese, animal skull, mirrors, and art books in McCarthy’s pictures are more than memories of Sweden—they are also traditional symbols of vanitas. These works are an acknowledgment by the artist that, like the fruit in Mögliga jordgubbar i speglar, her own desire (to relive her time in Sweden) “is unsustainable and with time passing, will begin to decay.”

—Catherine Smith is a curatorial intern at the NCMA.

This work, made possible by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, is part of an ongoing series of outdoor art projects, Art Has No Boundaries, commissioned by the NCMA to encourage visitors to actively explore the Museum Park.

Lydia Anne McCarthy, Osthyvel, handduk, blommor och blåbär, 2012, Digital print on vinyl

Lydia Anne McCarthy, Mögliga jordgubbar i speglar, 2012, Digital print on vinyl

Lydia Anne McCarthy, Renskalle med böcker, 2012, Digital print on vinyl

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