The Hyde Park Art Center’s PR team should get some sort of recognition. The description on its website of Mark Booth’s new exhibit, Spanish Still Life or A Large List of Merged Animals, really piqued my interest. The blurb bills the exhibit as a huge, mixed-media installation that takes one of the still life paintings of baroque artist Juan Sánchez Cotán, dissects it, and then restructures its parts using “sound, color, performance, and projection.” Booth’s piece is declared a “physical and psychological contemporary exploration” that “liberates Cotán’s subjects…and poetically embellishes them beyond recognition.”
Given this description, I expected Spanish Still Life to be a massive, almost overwhelming spectacle using different techniques to give a whole new meaning to Cotán’s work. But it turned out to be a sparse, disorganized musing on perception and language barely related to the painting that supposedly serves as its inspiration.
The first striking thing about Spanish Still Life is the sheer strangeness of it. The installation is essentially a darkened room with the still life projected onto two opposing walls, coupled with a recording of a woman saying a series of words that seem to be completely unrelated. While it certainly does incorporate different types of media, the piece is neither that large—the website says 1,800 square feet, but that is debatable—nor that exciting. Initially, the recording of the woman doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t seem like Booth has examined Cotán’s painting at all.
However, after a while it becomes at least a little clearer what he is trying to do. In order to look at the painting, you have to stand in front of the projector, which casts your shadow directly onto the art. In this way, it seems like Booth is trying to say something about how someone who looks at art sees him or herself in the artwork.
The audio recording begins with the woman listing the objects in the painting—a quince, cucumber, cabbage—and then goes on to random phrases, such as “an erotic film” or “deer in the park.” The woman’s voice is calm and monotonic, and she enunciates every syllable. Some of Booth’s previous work deals with the effect of sound and language; here Booth seems to be examining the objects in the painting by comparing their names to other words and showing the effect of their sound on the listener.
In addition to the projection and recording, there are two prints in a small room behind the main exhibit. Each is a printout of Cotán’s painting with, once more, a string of irrelevant words printed over it. However, to make things at least a little interesting, the words are printed on the page twice so they slightly overlap each other, making it possible to read only the first and last lines. While this is probably supposed to be some commentary on written language, it isn’t related to the painting or the exhibit at all. These prints seem almost like postscripts or haphazard additions that were tacked on at the last minute to give Spanish Still Life more content.
The main problem with Spanish Still Life is, in fact, that it is disjointed to the point of confusion. The projection and the recording don’t have anything to do with one another. Granted, the projection and physicality of the installation does make it a very contemporary take on painting, and the recording does extract the objects in Cotán’s still life from their context in a mildly interesting way. If Booth could expand his exhibit and connect all that he has to say within the framework of the painting, it could be an interesting study about visual art. Yet as it is, Spanish Still Life is a letdown.