Bon appétit!

By GREG COOK  |  February 9, 2010
STILL LIFE WITH ORANGES, HONEY POTS, AND BOXES OF SWEETS: Meléndez never obtained royal commissions for lofty subjects, but his loss is our gain.
The show offers an incredibly precision-rendered head of cauliflower, oranges that seem to glow, and a pile of knotty cucumbers that look as fresh as summer. Meléndez paints humble foods, chipped rustic plates, and dinged tin pots. His subjects are like a repertory company of fruits, fish, birds, and dishes appearing on wooden tables in dark rooms in one painting after another. One sharp pairing suggests that he painted the same bread and jug from two different angles. He favors raw foods (except for the breads) that often represent ingredients for specific meals. The cauliflower painting includes the makings of a meatless Lenten meal of eggs, vegetable stew, and cod.

And he achieves his vivid sense of presence by paying terrific attention to the rough texture of an orange versus the smooth skin of a pear versus the glossy glaze of a ceramic pot. Most of the paintings are relatively small, with the foods depicted at life size. His arrangements — in sharp light against dark brown-black backgrounds — are often tightly packed into vertical formats that seem to squeeze the objects forward toward the viewer.

Still lifes by their very nature suggest direct observation — a group of things that the artist arranged in order to reproduce. Meléndez mixed this act of witnessing with the copying of favorite subjects. For one pairing, he appears to have traced a pair of dead pigeons from the first painting into the second — perhaps with chalk on the back of a drawing, so he could transfer the drawing like carbon paper, or maybe via camera lucida. (The curators say that no drawings reliably attributable to Meléndez have survived.) The birds look nearly identical in each painting — though in what is believed to be the earlier one, the rendering is more crisp and delicate, whereas in the later painting the objects don't sit quite right on the table.

But it's not just the beautiful realism of the paintings that's so alluring. They have a slow, serene, contemplative quality. And at the same time, they speak of appetite, desire, rapture. In Still Life with Figs and Bread (circa 1770), the handle of a knife seems to shift perspective as it angles toward you, as if asking for your hand. Meléndez is inviting you in, whetting your desire, tempting you.

A particular Spanish Catholic sensibility seems at work here. In 1772, Meléndez reported that God was using him as "an instrument . . . in order to be more highly praised among mortals." We're to understand that God wanted Meléndez's paintings to "imitate so vividly the marvelous works of His wisdom." And the artist bathes his arrangements in a sort of heavenly spotlight. But mostly it comes across via those twin Catholic interests: bodily sensation (think of all the bloody-martyr art) and repressed desire (the Virgin, as well as ritual sacrifices like giving up meat for Lent). Everything is so ripe and luscious and nearly falling into our laps . . . and yet unattainable.

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