In the Last Light

Cornelius Völker explores the thorny relationships we humans have with nature and time in a series of paintings that, while rooted in conventions of historical European painting, are eminently contemporary.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a group of heroically-scaled works of luxuriant foliage. Theatrically illuminated, the vegetation emerges out of gloom. The paint is exuberantly brushy and the colors unnatural, making the work simultaneously luscious, psychedelic and somewhat ominous. No sun dappled garden or picturesque vista here; these look like the densely tangled forest in which Hansel and Gretel got lost.

Paired with the unorthodox landscapes in this show are still life paintings akin to those of the golden age of Dutch painting. Jars of pickled foodstuffs — cucumbers, herring filets, beets and white asparagus — glow softly in the shimmer of a candle stub. In other paintings, a kidney floats in a dusty specimen jar or two hearts lie next to one another under a harsh light.

Dutch stilleven, meaning “motionless” or “silent,” were carefully staged arrangements of perishable foods — ripe fruit, sumptuous shellfish, oysters and meats — laid out on Chinese porcelain and polished silver, arranged with flowers and Venetian glass, and displayed on a Turkish rug-draped table. Celebrations of opulence, material beauty and sensuality, their message is that life is brief; live it while you can.

But they’re also paintings about lavish consumption. In the 17th century, the Low Countries exploded economically. The newly rich merchant class was eager to show off the luxury their global commerce-based wealth was able to purchase. This was the first international, consumer-based culture, and they pursued it with abandon.

As the Dutch paintings reflect the social and cultural climate of their time, Cornelius Völker’s paintings mirror contemporary concerns.

Our relationship to nature has never been simple. We rely on the natural world for resources, while we exploit and defile it. We romanticize nature, but most of us are completely cut off from it. We fret over global warming and the extinction of species, yet are unwilling to make the inconvenient personal choices that would make a difference. With rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, pandemics and perpetual wild fire seasons, nature, in the 21st century, may prove more threatening than ever. The Blätter (Leaves) paintings reflect this ambivalence – both seductively beautiful and anxiety provoking.

And while Völker’s burning candle signals the inevitable passage of time, the jarred condiments allude to our attempt to stop it. In these pictures, the food never spoils. But neither is it mouthwatering, sumptuous or exotic. It’s cheap, mass-produced and sterile in its brine. How dulled by lives of affluence have we become? Are we so obsessed with youth, with arresting time and living forever, that we never actually taste life?