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Since the late 1980s, Chicago photographer and filmmaker Jeanne Dunning has used abstraction and other techniques to transform objects, the body, and food into something deceitfully grotesque, in a style akin to Edward Weston’s famous pepper. In her new work at the Donald Young Gallery, Dunning arranges classical still lifes of ripe fruits and vegetables on dark, rich-looking drapery and then waits, leaving the transformation up to nature, and photographing the decay.
The main gallery space is filled with Dunning’s series of still lifes (all from 2010) that look like scenes of a long-expired bacchanal. Updating the heritage of the hyper-real Northern Renaissance paintings with documentation of a real, less romantic memento mori, Dunning presents a tempting spread—persimmons, pomegranates, tomatoes, apples, wine, cheese, golden bowls, and crystal glassware. While in traditional still lifes the food itself takes center stage, mold is the star here, laced like heavy cobwebs in some photos and just beginning to grow in others. It becomes its own medium with a range of sickly greens and grays, a furry invasion happening in different areas of each composition. Like much of Dunning’s oeuvre, it’s easy to look at these photographs for a long time—and it’s difficult to look away.
Jeanne Dunning. Still Life with Grapes and Cheese, 2010. Archival pigment print. Image courtesy of Donald Young Gallery and the artist.
Working from the meaning and aesthetics of Northern Renaissance still lifes, the food in Dunning’s work is also very consciously used to symbolize abundance and wealth—rainbows of color, overflowing, sometimes sliced and ready for eating. Dunning’s use of light also gives the moldy food an almost holy quality. But where early still life artists were celebratory of the idea of a regal banquet for its religious and allegorical subtext, Dunning is critical. By sabotaging the idealization of food, Dunning comments on the overabundance, consumption, and waste in a capitalist society.
Dunning’s work is often slated as feminist art, coming from a larger history of 1960s and 1970s body art. With that in mind, the food in this series can be analogous with the body of the viewer, which would also link back to the art historical still life tradition. Significantly, Dunning also connects this tradition to the history of Chicago artists that distort the corporeal, from Ivan Albright to Jim Nutt to Rachel Niffenegger.
Of course, rotting fruit—even used as a metaphor—shouldn’t be such a shock. Death, deterioration, and reproduction are universal parts of nature, but in contemporary society mortality and aging are serious anxieties. It’s more common to see controlled images of perfection than anything that follows nature’s course. Dunning seems to play with this by titling each piece as if nothing is amiss, despite the food being covered in mold; it’s just another Still Life with Melons and Plums.
Jeanne Dunning. Untitled, 2008. Archival pigment print. Image courtesy of Donald Young Gallery and the artist.
It’s a shame the rotting jack-o’-lantern photograph, Untitled, is quarantined in the back office area from the prominent placement of the still lifes. Several other untitled images— from the 2008 series of soft, hollowed pumpkins, imploding with moldy screams—were left out of the show completely because of space constraints. Fortunately, they can be seen on Donald Young’s website. Also in the office area, photos of slices of cake and other pastries are arranged in an especially unappetizing group. Chocolate Mouse Cake with Raspberries is marbled with green mold, as if a nightmarish version of Thiebaud’s bakecases. Again, it would have been nice to have the desert pieces integrated into the main space to add some variety to the still life series.
There’s a noticeable shift in several of the still lifes that feature root vegetables. In Still Life with Turnips, a sprout breaks through the moldy skin, and in Still Life with Radishes, more sprouts shoot out of a wicker basket of earthy vegetables. Dunning’s vivid, tactile photographs tell us to keep mortality in mind along with pragmatism—“waste not, want not”— and remember that decay can look as natural and hopeful as a green sprout.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer