Sheldon Tapley and the Not-So-Still Life

With theatrical splendor, Sheldon Tapley celebrates the still life tradition by incorporating excess, reinvesting the figure, and complicating the design.

By Daniel Brown

Harvest Table (pastel on paper, 38×32) by Sheldon Tapley

Still life is the most problematic — and most abstract — of genres. The paintings seem to lack the grandeur associated with landscapes or with figures that can assume allegorical or mythological-religious resonance. Because the objects depicted are taken from ordinary life, however, they intimately speak to our daily existence and to our interior lives. Sheldon Tapley revitalizes, indeed, electrifies the still life genre by combining aspects of contemporary life with painterly constructs derived from the history of Western art. His formalist concerns join with his tendency toward metaphor; his pleasure in painting ordinary objects reminds us of nature’s bounties and art’s artifices concurrently.

Tapley also frequently utilizes figurative elements — usually copies of famous images from Baroque art — a sly way of putting figures and landscapes in the background, while the still life elements remain at the fore. Such a design is an amusing reversal of the norm in Western painting; Tapley insists upon the primary importance, indeed the pre-eminence, of the still life. While the artist frequently alludes to Baroque masters and just as frequently incorporates their work into his own, he’s not an appropriator; his many influences and references weave through the work but do not dominate it.

A Web of Influence

Tapley selects which objects to include, then designs the composition and lays in color; in the process, ideas and essences emerge in an erudite yet playful manner. When he describes the “sensuality, abundance, and force” that he gets from the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, he’s describing Rubens’s essential influence on his own work.

“The power and sensuality of Rubens’s images have always attracted me. I also love French painting,” says Tapley. “Some of the masters I’ve returned to again and again include Chardin, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, and Matisse. Richard Deibenkorn admired Matisse. I admire both of them and treasure that linkage.”

Tapley’s still lifes are not only a virtuosic study of the history of art; they are more palpably a demonstration of texture, dimensionality, spatial relations, perspectival shifts, color relationships and, most significantly, the hallmarks of the Baroque sensibility: theatricality and sensuality.

Still Life With Flowers (oil on aluminum, 36×48) by Sheldon Tapley

An Unusual Surface

Although Tapley’s mother is an artist, now retired, who worked in watercolor and taught private lessons in their home, Tapley avoided art in his youth. Taking a course with Bobbie McKibbin during his first year at Grinnell College in Iowa, Tapley discovered that he loved to draw; he continues to work with charcoal and pastel. He learned, too, the “amazing and forgiving” properties of oil paint. “I particularly like the way an oily film of wet paint responds throughout a day of work,” he says “so that it sometimes seems to be alive.”

His Work Session

Tapley paints not on canvas but on aluminum panels, which he cuts and prepares by coating the panel with an oil primer. Once the primer is dry, he sands the surface until it’s smooth. As the painting progresses, he structures each work session according to these steps:

(1) He sands away or scrapes off anything he doesn’t like (as long as the surface is dry). “For sanding I use wet-dry 600-grit sandpaper, and I work very gently,” he says. Scraping (much less common) is done with a tiny palette knife or fresh single-edge razor blade. (2) He applies retouch varnish to the area he’s going to work on. “The retouch varnish dries quickly and restores luster, allowing me to see the painting better.” (3) Next he applies glazes to any areas that need it. (4) He works with direct application of paint, which can go into the wet glazes if necessary; (5) finishes an area; moves on to the next area; (6) and then repeats the last four steps until satisfied with the painting.

The Right Balance

To be satisfied with the painting — aye, there’s the rub. “It’s always difficult to find the right balance between memorable description and a lively surface,” says Tapley. “Some painters label that a dichotomy between ‘tight’ and ‘loose,’ but I find those words too loaded and inadequate. Too much discipline, and the painting will look well wrought but dull; too much freedom, and it will look lively but lack substance. The entire process is challenging,” he concludes, “and I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. The most difficult decisions in the process, however, come at the beginning, before the panel is even primed, when I’m setting up the subject or even just thinking of the subject. What will I paint? What do I want this picture to be? No amount of skillful painting later in the process will save an image if I don’t have confidence in it from the beginning.” .

Spiral by Sheldon Tapley
Spiral (oil on aluminum, 21½x20) by Sheldon Tapley

The Theatre of Excess

It’s the answers to those questions — “What will I paint? What do I want this picture to be?” — that make Tapley’s work original. He regularly includes images of female nudes from paintings of the past within his still lifes. By doing so, Tapley intensifies and luxuriates the sensuality of the objects he’s depicting, while never losing sight of the fact that all their origins are in the history of art. We relish the Baroque sense of movement he adapts.

Abstract Expressionist Influences

Take a look at the swirling drapes, the bird’s-eye focus, the circular plethora that’s almost dizzying in Spiral. Tapley makes these qualities of abundance celebratory. Unlike many of his contemporaries who extol austerity, Tapley loves to “pack” his compositions — reminding us that he matured under the aegis of Abstract Expressionism. Working in the realist idiom challenged him to flatten the pictorial space to make an object seem “present.” This is a tactic he learned from looking at Cézanne.

Tapley designs his works as pieces of stagecraft. There’s a flagrant exhibitionism afoot, as well as an exuberant physicality — a veneration of life’s cornucopia of foods, fabrics and fleshes. When he weaves aspects of Matisse and Cézanne into the typologies of the Baroque masters, we know we’re in the presence of an artist who veers dangerously — tilting picture planes towards us, as if the players/objects were walking off the stage into the audience. .

Bacchanal by Sheldon Tapley
Bacchanal (oil on aluminum, 6×11) by Sheldon Tapley

Ways of Approaching the Still Life

In effect, Tapley’s work is a case study in how to reinvigorate the still life tradition. His paintings range from the relatively less complex (focusing on single objects) to the nearly all-over compositions reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. Radically angled perspectives are common. The tilting forward of the picture plane, which reached its apogee in Cézanne, is pushed farther (towards the viewer and away from realistic space) in a painting as relatively simple as Bacchanal and as complicated as Waterfall.

Meaning and Emotion

The beautifully designed Bacchanal utilizes the fireplace front in his studio as a kind of framed stage set for those mundane objects so fraught with meaning and emotion when de-contextualized from their ordinary usage.

In this variation on le tableau vivant, Tapley chooses a Matissean piece of fabric reminiscent of Persian art as the backdrop, a play on painters’ drop cloths from the mundane/profane world, the colors of which are picked up by each object he lovingly selects and depicts: an apple, a plate with an overlaid knife (doubling the spatial complexities), a carpenter’s claw, a translucent blue pitcher (allowing for further investigation of the play of light), and three types of flowers. An art book with two nudes on its cover complete the scene. The inclusion of tools in so many of his paintings celebrates their shapes and colors; they remind us of the artist’s hand and touch (the work of art).  

Waterfall by Sheldon Tapley
Waterfall (pastel on paper, 66×45) by Sheldon Tapley

An Arithmetic Arrangement

In the exquisite, explosive Waterfall, a pastel on paper, Sheldon Tapley designs his composition another way, according to an arithmetic arrangement. Four potentially separate still lifes are combined in one painting. A pile of rocks suggests the dialectic between soft/hard, smooth/textural that provides a yin/yang of delight. A vase of flowers inhabits the center, and a basket of contorted gourds dominates the middle ground; a picture of a cascading waterfall is tacked on the wall; an Etch-A-Sketch, as if to comment on that explosion, appears beneath it on the left. On the other side of the waterfall is a hand-held light.

The foreground includes tools dramatizing the craft of both art and construction: a sledge hammer and ropes that create diagonal spatial relationships and dimensionality; a ripe melon, a bowl of lemons and eggs, and a vaguely anthropomorphic lobster. Finally, a large saw, angled and arched like a scythe in the foreground, reminds us that within the luxuriousness of these erotically charged symbols of life and sensuality lurks the specter of decay, a reminder of death’s knock upon Eros’s door. .

A Vivid Hyper-Realism

Eroticism indeed is one of Tapley’s primary themes as is its cousin, sexuality. The instinct toward love/sex (Eros) as it’s commingled with death (Thanatos) and is interpreted as and via still life (la nature morte) may be his underlying concern; the sexual climax, we remember, is called “la petite morte.” From all this it’s clear that Tapley is a theatrical painter. Tapley’s is a kind of vivid hyperrealism, and the very brightness of his colors gives his fabricated objects lifelike qualities, almost in the way a stage director manipulates lighting and the colors of costumes. After years of looking — absorbing ideas and technical lessons from other masters — Tapley has moved into the fertile realms of his own vast imaginative powers. .

Check out this step-by-step demonstration by Sheldon Tapley: Elements of a Still Life Painting

A version of this article originally appeared in Artists Magazine.

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