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Arts & Culture

A Not-So-Still Life: Cauleen Smith At SDMA

Contemporary artist Cauleen Smith has a new video work of art at San Diego Museum of Art in response to an early 1600s still life painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán.
Dustin Aksland
Contemporary artist Cauleen Smith has a new video work of art at San Diego Museum of Art in response to an early 1600s still life painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán.

The day museums shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic was the day San Diego Museum of Art installed a new exhibition by contemporary artist Cauleen Smith — a video inspired by an early 1600s masterpiece in the museum's collection, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber."

And when other museums in Balboa Park were able to reopen briefly in early July before the latest surge in cases and mandated shutdown, SDMA did not have a chance to open.

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Now based in Los Angeles, Smith, an interdisciplinary filmmaker and artist, grew to love this specific Cotán still life painting when she lived in San Diego. After connecting with SDMA, Smith began to create an immersive exhibition, "Mystical Time and Deceptive Light," and a video installation, "Flori Canta, 2020," to be in dialogue with Cotán’s painting.

Smith wanted to focus on the small ways the painting deceives a viewer. "We got into a lot of conversations about the shadows for each object, the kind of impossibility of the painting. You can't see very much. You can't see where the string is hanging. You can't see what the light source is," Smith said. "The shadows don't make sense."

Contemporary digital and video works have enjoyed more than passing attention from SDMA in recent years. Their 2018 major exhibition of artist Tim Shaw's work included groundbreaking use of video, artificial intelligence and technology. Last year, the museum installed a full-room immersive video installation by Nick Roth that used technology to mimic the brush strokes of the old masters' paintings just down the hall.

"As we know, technology is the current language," SDMA executive director Roxana Velásquez said, noting that it makes art more accessible to different generations. "Technology is what allows you to, as you saw with Nick Roth, to play. To experience and expand," Velásquez said.

Smith's installation is also a full-room immersive experience — though its one audiences have yet to immerse themselves in. She designed the room to envelope the viewer, which features Cotán's "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," along with a large screen featuring her looped 30-minute video. SDMA has made the video available online, as well as a tour of the exhibition, until the museum can welcome in-person visitors again.


The video draws attention to Cotán's void. In her studio, Smith constructed the shelf from the painting — as best she could. "The shelf you see in the painting couldn't exist in real life; it's too slanted. If you were ever to try to set up the painting in real life, it would be impossible," Smith said.

Juan Sánchez Cotán, "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," ca. 1602. Oil on canvas.
San Diego Museum of Art
Juan Sánchez Cotán, "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," ca. 1602. Oil on canvas.

"The black void is always there," Smith said about Cotán's series of still life works. "In most of the paintings, he puts things in front of it. He obscures it." Smith said that in this Cotán work at SDMA, the void is more present. Smith chose to give it center stage in her piece.

Other than the shelf, Smith left the frame mostly empty, spotlighting the negative space in Cotán's work, along with the sound of her studio. Footsteps and everyday shuffling in the studio can be heard, as well as, like clockwork, bursts of music with women singing about nature — Mary J. Blige, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and more — every five minutes.

Much of Smith's inspiration draws not just from inside the painting, but on Cotán's work and life. He left his worldly life and joined a monastery. "There's a lot of speculation that even the still lifes were asking spiritual questions. I thought, well maybe a more meditative approach is the way to go," Smith said.

When leaving his studio to join the monastery, Cotán left a full accounting of what was in his studio. This specific list made Smith want to anchor her work in her studio, hence the ambient studio noise and even the appearance of the artist at some point.

At the end, the video abruptly, surprisingly departs the shelf setup and deposits its viewers into bright, lively, moving nature: Flowers sway in the breeze, a hummingbird feasts on ripened fruit. Smith said she went from micro to a macro, studying the idea of the food items hanging and resting impossibly in the painting as living examples of food supply.

"I have this garden in my backyard where I get to watch things grow, or die, or a combination of all that. It seemed that at the same time, this still quiet interiority that Cotán offers, there's also the world and all of its life," Smith said.

The resultant work takes elements and stories locked inside a centuries-old painting and brings both Juan Sánchez Cotán’s art and Smith's strange, meditative, evocative and soothing work to a modern audience — online for now, but Smith hopes viewers can immerse themselves in the work in person soon.