17 Contemporary Artists Reimagining the Still Life

Alina Cohen
Aug 7, 2020 5:41PM

The things we own—the clothes we wear, the objects on our tables, the furniture in our homes—tell stories about who we are, what we value, and where we come from. Artists who make still lifes create suggestive worlds, placing clues about their lives and their often invented, absent characters into their compositions.

The 17 contemporary artists below explore the material world through abstract painting, performance, craft, and digital media. As they capture objects ranging from bodega sandwiches to artist monographs, they document what it’s like to live, consume, and simply make art today.

Hilary Pecis

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Hilary Pecis, Two Candles, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Hilary Pecis, Visiting Michelle, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.


Hilary Pecis’s vibrant still lifes are filled with art-historical references, and with art itself. Painting monographs of Alice Neel, Henry Taylor, Georgia O’Keeffe, Eva Hesse, Francis Bacon, Kerry James Marshall, Hilma af Klint, and Lari Pittman line the tables and bookshelves of her compositions, indicating the artist’s own muses. Her interiors often feature Salon-style hangs of canvases both figurative and abstract. In Camellias (2018), Pecis even reproduces a poster for a Joan Mitchell exhibition, which hangs behind a giant bouquet of flowers, propped up on art books. An ostensible Ernst Ludwig Kirchner canvas hangs behind another floral grouping in Camellias and Leopard (2019).

The still life offers Pecis the ability to reference artists, living and dead, who are working (or have worked) in very different modes. “I find that there is a lot of freedom within the parameters of the still life,” she said. “It is a place to start, but there are infinite possibilities.” She cites the “color and application” of the Fauvist movement and California Funk artists as major inspirations. This November, she’ll exhibit her still lifes and landscapes in a solo show at Spurs Gallery in Beijing.

Holly Coulis

Lives and works in Athens, Georgia

Holly Coulis, Small Cup and Steam, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery.


For Holly Coulis, the appeal of painting still lifes is in stillness itself. “In other genres (even abstraction), there is paused movement,” she said. “A still life was still before it was painted, and after. Until someone or something comes to rearrange or to disturb it.” Such compositions feel “intimate and personal” to her. Looking at Coulis’s still lifes, a viewer is gazing at an unseen character’s private things. Solidly colored lemons, vases, cigarettes, knives, and cats dance around Coulis’s canvases, cheerfully bumping against one another. The artist outlines her forms many times in varied, bold hues, giving them radiant, vibrational auras. Pop art, Cubism, and abstraction inform the flat color, geometry, “off perspective,” and playfulness in Coulis’s paintings.

Coulis said that right now in her studio, she’s thinking about how to shift the lines in her paintings and “find a way to make them move more.” She’s also experimenting with making her paintings more abstract, pushing them to the very edge of what she calls “still life–ness.”

Nicole Dyer

Lives and works in Baltimore

Nicole Dryer, My Pantry, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Nicole Dyer updates the grand Pop art tradition of incorporating representations of branded foodstuffs into her art, à la Andy Warhol and, more recently, Katherine Bernhardt. She’s made floor sculptures of La Croix and Vintage-brand seltzer cases, and a multimedia painting with a Quaker Oats package at its center. Faux candy conversation hearts, ginger chews, and Froot Loops adorn the borders of her highly textured works. Dyer is interested in how products can “trigger an intense emotional response” in a viewer, such as nostalgia, hope, or commitment. Consumerism is a major concern for the artist—her work considers how seltzer brands accrue cult followings and how “colorful, matte packaging can make junk food appear healthier.”

While Pop art is ostensibly her most direct influence, Dyer is also inspired by a much older aesthetic tradition—Dutch still-life paintings of food. “I love the compositions, detail, and dramatic lighting,” she said. “I’m interested in the effect of similar compositions but made up of modern products and brighter colors.”

Anna Valdez

Lives and works in Oakland

Anna Valdez, installation view at Hashimoto Contemporary. Photo by Shaun Roberts. Courtesy of the artist.

Anna Valdez draws and paints tables and floors crowded with art books (featuring David Hockney, Georges Braque, and Philip Pearlstein), plants, cow skulls (clear nods to Georgia O’Keeffe), conch shells, and decorative vases evocative of ceramic traditions from around the world. “My subjects might look like compilations of ordinary mundane objects, but together they tell my specific story of painting investigation through art lineage, symbolism, and composition,” said Valdez. In this way, her still lifes become skewed self-portraits.

Valdez noted her interest in the Dutch vanitas tradition of painting from the 17th century, in which artists painted symbols of death to remind viewers of their own mortality. “By incorporating plants, shells, bones, and stones, along with paintings, sketches, ceramic objects, and fabrics, I am referring to the natural world, time, and contemporary life,” said Valdez. In early November, Denver’s David B. Smith Gallery will exhibit new, large-scale still lifes by the artist based on installations she’s created in her studio.

Alec Egan

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Alec Egan, Bag of Fruit on Ottoman, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi.

Alec Egan, Bathroom, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Anat Ebgi.

Alec Egan’s lush interiors feature floral wallpapers and fabrics that suggest some absent homeowner’s obsession with harnessing nature into man-made designs. Blossoms bloom across pillows, rugs, bedspreads, and chairs, reminding this viewer of the scene from the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, in which Max’s bedroom slowly morphs into an untameable forest. Egan loves the way that his still lifes can conjure narratives, as well as ideas about just who the mysterious, unseen occupants may be. He named “storytelling, exhibition construction, duration, and seriality” as his major aesthetic interests.

“I’m building an imaginary house through each of my exhibitions,” Egan explained. In 2017, at his first show at Anat Ebgi, he began his series of paintings depicting different perspectives of one enormous abode—so far, he’s created a living room, two bathrooms, four bedrooms, an entrance, a dining room, and a library. Up through September 5th, Egan’s current exhibition, “August,” at Anat Ebgi’s Los Angeles space, showcases the most recent additions to the artist’s home. “The next exhibition will most likely deal with the kitchen,” said Egan.

Nikki Maloof

Lives and works in South Hadley, Massachusetts

Nikki Maloof
After Hours, 2019

Animals dead and alive fill Nikki Maloof’s canvases—from fish, oysters, and lobster resting on plates atop a checkered tablecloth, to a caged bird or a cat gazing out a window. As vibrant as the works are, they also elicit a sense of confinement and angst. In Cry Whenever You Need To (2018), for example, a bird cage is lined with a New York Times page whose headline announces the work’s emotional title.

The artist is inspired by the “lush textures,” “hyperdramatic arrangements,” and “symbolism” of the Dutch vanitas tradition. She’s particularly drawn to the moments in the 17th-century canvases where it becomes clear that “the artists drifted into fantasy to achieve the drama they were looking for.” The closer she looks at these paintings, she said, the more they begin to “feel like stages for operas or plays about the everyday.”

Maloof hopes to “heighten and expand” these ideas across her own works, creating psychological intrigue as she juxtaposes everyday objects and domesticated beings. Painting entirely from her imagination,she loves finding opportunities for “chaos and foreboding to creep” into her compositions. Maloof’s upcoming show at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles this November is filled with works centered around food preparation.

Pedro Pedro

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Pedro Pedro, Table In Studio With Lotion And Denatured Alcohol, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

A curious, surrealistic physics infuses Pedro Pedro’s still lifes. Socks, a banana peel, shoes, and a hat appear to droop like Dalí clocks. The chair cushions and tables that hold them are slanted so vertically that it’s amazing all these objects haven’t slipped off. Appropriately, Pedro said he’s drawn to the still-life form for its “banality and mystery”—in his paintings, the everyday becomes deeply, compellingly weird.

Pedro said that the color and vibrancy of Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s still lifes inspire him, as well as the “movement and detail” in the work of Italian Baroque painter Giovanna Garzoni. While he also looks back to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist compositions, the artist added that he’s not attempting to “break or honor” any specific traditions—he simply likes to “sample” elements from other paintings. At the moment, he’s working on a composition of tomatoes on a vine that references a grocery store advertisement he recently received in the mail.

Lucia Hierro

Lives and works in New York City

Lucia Hierro
BYOB: Retrato de la Artista Primavera 2020, 2020
Fridman Gallery

Lucia Hierro, Sufrir o Sofreír, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

The title of Lucia Hierro’s series of digitally printed still lifes “Bodegón” (2015–present) refers to both the Spanish term for “still life” and the small New York corner shops more typically called “bodegas.” Bodega staples—an egg-and-cheese sandwich on a roll in hexagonally printed foil; a bottle of Fanta; a bright yellow package of Café Bustelo coffee—fill Hierro’s works, alongside items such as a Yale coffee mug, a Giorgio Morandi painting, and a New York Yankees cap. Altogether, the objects conjure city lives that cross economic and cultural lines.

The works also reconsider the legacy of Dutch still-life painters. It’s easy, Hierro thinks, to admonish the 17th-century artists for portraying objects acquired via conquests—olives from across the Mediterranean, for example, or Chinese porcelain. In Hierro’s aesthetic world, however, these objects and their politics become far more complicated. “I, a Dominican-American consumer, implicate myself in the way that history is still playing out today,” said Hierro. Next up, the artist is slated to curate an exhibition at Gold/Scopophilia* (artist Jennifer Wroblewski’s gallery in Montclair, New Jersey) and mount a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut next June.

Jean Shin

Lives and works in New York City

Jean Shin, Floating MAiZE, 2020. Photo by Andrew Moore. Courtesy of Brookfield Place.

Jean Shin believes that still lifes offer viewers the chance to appreciate the beauty of everyday objects. The form, she said, presents a “preserved and memorialized” reality that depicts the artist’s “systems, culture, and history.” Shin, who is known for her often monumental installations, has mounted dozens of sports trophies atop a long, white plinth; built structures composed entirely of discarded lottery tickets; and made an outdoor sculpture with broken umbrellas.

“I’m interested in engaging participants and communities in the process of collecting large quantities of everyday objects and detritus,” said Shin. “I transform these materials to be in dialogue with larger social concerns and in response to the site’s context.” She recently completed a large-scale installation, Floating MAiZE (2020), for the Winter Garden Atrium at Brookfield Place in New York City. The work repurposes more than 7,000 green Mountain Dew bottles into a sculpture that resembles a faux cornfield. Shin said she wants to connect the “harmful consequences of industrial scale agriculture of corn to the unhealthy consumption of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods and beverages,” and lead viewers to consider how food production, nutrition, and pollution are intertwined.

Daniel Gordon

Lives and works in New York City

Daniel Gordon
Yellow Daffodils, 2020
James Fuentes

To make his still lifes, Daniel Gordon takes photographs of everyday objects from the internet—fruits, vases, flowers, pitchers—then reassembles them in his studio and photographs the final compositions. The resulting frames are vibrant and complex: Looking at the two-dimensional pictures, the viewer must distinguish between real and digital space. Misshapen apples can be blue or purple, while onions look simultaneously flat and like collaged, three-dimensional objects.

A tricky sense of unreality and distortion creates intrigue across Gordon’s series. “My work has engaged with genres of still life, portraiture, and landscape,” said the artist. “I like to work within a genre so I can hopefully add to a tradition and play with some of the established conventions.” Through lockdown, Gordon has made smaller still lifes that incorporate real household items into his compositions. He calls them “Night Pictures,” since he’s only been able to work on them in the evenings.

Arden Surdam

Lives and works in Los Angeles

Arden Surdam, Autopoiesis I, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Kendra Jayne Patrick Gallery.

Arden Surdam
Charcuterie, 2019

Arden Surdam’s photographs embrace the macabre. They feature sausage links trailing down a giant plastic tarp, bloodied animals, and stained sheets. It’s no surprise that she cites Francis Bacon, master of the grotesque, as a major influence. Recently, she’s been thinking about the artist’s diptychs and triptychs, especially Study from the Human Body (1983). It looks, she said, like “a slippery human chicken.” Bacon’s multiple-canvas works—which both suggest and evade narrative, linear readings—were themselves informed by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, who famously shot animals’ movements in serial frames.

Recently, Surdam has been playing with similarly sequenced still lifes, asking viewers to look at four pictures of varying perspectives on the same few objects (a photograph, a glass surface, and a shiny, cream-colored sheet, for example) to extrapolate a larger scene and narrative. Surdam is now previewing her first monograph, Glut, and will have work in Phaidon’s forthcoming book The Kitchen Studio: Culinary Creations of Artists.

Stephanie H. Shih

Lives and works in New York City

Stephanie H. Shih, Stone Dumpling House, 2018. Photo by Robert Bredvad. Courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie H. Shih makes ceramics that resemble foods found in East Asian grocery stores—Kikkoman soy sauce, Sriracha, and Botan Calrose rice, for example. “My work is about shared nostalgia,” said Shih. “I like creating vignettes that are ambiguous enough to speak to a large swath of the Asian American diaspora while also being specific enough to speak to distinct memories.”

Shih’s three-dimensional objects stimulate viewers’ desire, inviting them to imagine touching the works and feeling their weight. The sculptural aspect draws Shih’s audience into her exhibition spaces “both physically and psychologically.” Starting on August 17th, a Perrotin viewing salon will exhibit a portion of Shih’s newest series which, in sum, features 30 ceramic soy sauce bottles from across the Asian American diaspora.

Guanyu Xu

Lives and works in Chicago

Guanyu Xu, Rooms of Convergence, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

In Guanyu Xu’s series “Temporarily Censored Home” (2018–19), the artist redecorated his childhood home while his parents were away at work. Xu, who grew up as a closeted gay teenager, mounted photographs of himself and other gay men around opened closets, floor-to-ceiling windows, his parents’ bedroom, the family dining room, and other spaces that once served to repress his sexuality. He then photographed those rooms, documenting and preserving his subversive acts so they could retain their power long after the artist had to take his pictures down again (his parents still don’t know he’s gay).

Before the pandemic, Xu was making similar photo interventions in immigrants’ homes. Now, homebound, he’s been making computer-generated images based on cities he’s visited, photographs he’s taken, and the news he’s consumed during lockdown. This September, he plans to exhibit a work in Shanghai, as the winner of Photofairs’s Shanghai Exposure Award.

Xu sees his prints as “symbolic” objects that “formulate memory, desire, identity, and ideology.” He questions the “static form of photography itself,” presenting photographs of photographs “in context.” His works also document his own performance. The blink of his shutter, he said, “represents the brief moment of freedom I could have.”

Maria Nepomuceno

Lives and works in Rio de Janeiro

Maria Nepomuceno, detail of Xamã I, 2017. © Maria Nepomuceno. Photo by Jason Wyche. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Maria Nepomuceno, 3 mulheres, 2017. © Maria Nepomuceno. Photo by Pedro Agilson. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Maria Nepomuceno’s knitted, sculptural tableaux at first look like floral still lifes. Closer examination, however, reveals the organic nature of her forms, suggesting organs, arteries, and other inner workings of the body turned outward into magnificent, colorful assemblages. “Even though I have works where nature is an important reference, I don’t consider them still lifes,” said Nepomuceno. “They speak more of an inner living universe.”

Nepomuceno is now working on an installation for Japan’s 2021 Ichihara Art Mix Festival, for which she will collaborate with children from Rio de Janeiro’s Maré community. She will also create a site-specific installation at the Portico Library in Manchester, and will launch a wearable art project with London’s Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery.

All of her work—wearable or not—espouses genuine feeling and a love for craft. Nepomuceno said she wants to “break with cynical art,” making viewers “feel pleasure and love” in an inclusive, vital way.

Tishan Hsu

Lives and works in New York City

Tishan Hsu, Ooze, 1987. Courtesy of the artist.

Tishan Hsu’s artwork considers the ways in which humans and technology are becoming inextricably intertwined. His floor sculptures conjure machines and biotechnologies that might be placed in fantastical, futuristic rooms. As iPhones increasingly become extensions of ourselves, medical technologies reimagine how our bodies can function, and internet companies reduce people to data, Hsu’s work implies that human bodies may, at some point, become objects worthy of still lifes. “The traditional still-life composition has been invaded by a still life of technological objects,” said Hsu, offering the examples of monitors, screens, and handheld devices. He’s not drawn to the still-life form, per se. Instead, he is drawn to the “transformation” in the things we value and capture in contemporary art.

Hsu explained how, beginning with the Renaissance, Western artists placed mankind at the center of the world—and, subsequently, at the center of art. “This perception in the pictorial subject evolved to include landscape and interior objects,” said Hsu. He is inspired by art’s ability to reveal such changes in societal value. Through his own work, he hopes to convey how humans’ interactions with objects are changing via technology.

Enjoying “the calm and focus” of quarantine while simultaneously “internalizing the stressful onslaught of daily news” on the web, Hsu has recently begun a new series of pencil-on-paper drawings. With these new works, he’s exploring internet images that derive from data and our “extractive use of technology.”

Isaac Julien

Lives and works in London

Isaac Julien, Still Life Studies Series, No. 5, 2008. © Isaac Julien, Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures

Many of Isaac Julien’s films and installations play with the idea of the memento mori—paintings, closely related to vanitas works, that include symbols or reminders of death and mortality. In a series of 2008 lightbox still lifes, Julien photographed the late Derek Jarman’s famed Prospect Cottage residence, and its surrounding gardens, in the English county of Kent.

Julien incorporated these works into “Brutal Beauty,” an exhibition he curated in 2008 at the Serpentine Galleries to celebrate Jarman’s work 14 years after the lauded director’s death. Julien helped fundraise to preserve Prospect Cottage as a cultural site and made the film Derek (2008), which retells Jarman’s life through archival footage and more recent shots of the home and garden. In doing so, Julien has helped secure Jarman’s legacy by documenting and honoring the things that Jarman built, acquired, and grew during his brief lifetime.

Julien described his more recent film, Lessons of the Hour (2019), as “a series of still-life studies.” To create the multi-channel work, Julien shot footage at Frederick Douglass’s old home in Washington, D.C., capturing the famed abolitionist’s possessions to tell a larger story about freedom and ongoing struggles for racial justice. By documenting centuries-old artifacts, Julien said he’s trying to create a new kind of “aesthetic activism” that reinvigorates such towering historical figures as Douglass and “engenders new responses to contemporary challenges.”

Guy Yanai

Lives and works in Tel Aviv

Guy Yanai
Plant in German Office I, 2020
Guy Yanai
Gilboa Plant, 2020

Guy Yanai believes humans have a “simple and primal attraction” to the objects that surround them. When we paint them, he said, “they become vehicles for showing our inner lives.” Yanai’s domestic scenes feature twiggy plants in boxy planters, windows that reflect other homes or look onto a hilly landscape, and interior walls painted brilliant pinks and blues. Viewers can always make out Yanai’s underlying grids, which connects his practice to both traditional mosaic works and pixelated screens.

Yanai sounds omnivorous when he speaks of his influences, citing musician John Zorn; television shows; Etruscan, Roman, and ancient Greek art; Cy Twombly, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning, among others. Both modern and ancient artists, said Yanai, shared a fascination with transforming the objects around them into “vessels for the most profound of emotions.”

Despite the global pause of the pandemic, Yanai is enjoying significant attention from the art world at the moment. This September, he’ll mount a solo show at CONRADS in Düsseldorf—where he’ll show portraits for the first time—as well as a project with Niels Kantor in Beverly Hills. In the fall of 2021, both Praz-Delavallade in Los Angeles and Miles McEnery in New York will open solo presentations of his work.

Alina Cohen

Header Image: Stephanie H. Shih, “88,” 2018. Photo by Robert Bredvad. Courtesy of the artist.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Anat Ebgi, Miles McEnery, and Lucia Hierro’s “Bodegón series.” Additionally, Lucia Hierro has a show opening at Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in June 2021, not February 2021. The text has been updated to reflect these changes.