Stephen Tanis

The still lifes by Stephen Tanis (b. 1945), recently on view at Jane Haslem Gallery in Washington, D.C., follow a fairly restricted formula: a cluster of natural objects seen in tight close-up against a neutral background, with the table edge neatly paralleling the lower edge of the canvas. Despite the shallowness of the display space, the illusion of three-dimensionally is persuasive, and forms have a sculptural presence. Tanis uses shadows adeptly to further the illusion. In Shells (2006), two curvaceous specimens— one large and spiky, the other a tight little spiral— are propped up against a sky-blue backdrop. Given the color choices and eccentric forms, one strategy would be to flatten out the composition into flat, rococo shapes; here the artist uses elongated shadows to anchor the shells realistically in mimetic space. Exotic shells have an alien presence, but Tanis brings the same intense focus to less flamboyant subjects. Garlic (2006) lays out a row of papery bulbs on a marble surface, in front of an old metal implement with a patina as mottled as the purplish background. The crinkly texture of the garlic has a different feel than the calcified bone of the shells.

Stephen Tanis, Garlic, 2006 Courtesy Jane Haslem Gallery, Washington, D.C.

The painter’s skill in representing textures is particularly evident if you compare his use of white in various works. The rumpled white cloth cradling a clutch of dusky red fruit in Pomegranates (2006) has a coarse weight, while the delicate freshness of the flowers in White Tulips is almost palaple, especially as set of by their stiff brown paper wrappings. White Tulips is one of Tanis’s most sensuous paintings, perhaps because the remarkably life-like flowers seem to press against the picture plane. Usually, he maintains the clean line of the table as a kind of stage set. Rather than being casually observed, objects are arranged with an awareness of still life as an exercise in mise-en-scène. Tanis, now professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, where he taught for a number of years, focused on still life during a sabbatical in Spain. His still lifes do not explicitly allude to old master visual tropes such as Zurbarán’s lemons spot-lit against an inky background or Velázquez’s elevation of humble earthware to the dignity of a great subject. But this contemporary painter does approach his subjects with a combination of honesty and formality that avoids the vagaries of stylistic fashion. This attitude is seen at its most straightforward in Breads (2006), depicting a fistful of crusty loaves in a woven basket. This is primarily a study in browns, with variety provided by the matte or shiny surfaces of the bulbous breads, with one braided loaf and another wrapped in white paper. Two small, round rolls sit outside the basket on the white cloth that provides the principal color contrast. The background is tawny and mottled. Again, shadows give weight to the objects. Calla Lilies and Bowl (2006) is equally straightforward, although the components are more colorful. Two calla lilies, sharp green and fresh white in color, lie in front of a wooden bowl. The bowl is draped with an antique vestment cloth, richly patterned in rose and pale gold. In other circumstances, iconographic interpretations might seem warranted, but Tanis stays focused on the formal issues. The artist, who took his BFA from the University of Cincinnati and his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and lived briefly in Florence, has also worked on figure compositions with allusions to social concerns. But it is in the perennially modest yet enduring genre of still life that he finds true scope for his visual intelligence.
Running concurrently at Jane Haslem Gallery was “Our Unspoiled Land,” an exhibition of prints and drawings focusing on the beauty and fragility of the landscape. Featured artists included Tom Edwards, George Harkins, Joseph Raffael, Karl Schrag and Robert Ziemann. Schrag’s Of Island Nights: Sicklemoon and Birches is boldly graphic, like an edgy fairy tale illustration, with suggestions of Rockwell Kent and early Kandinsky. Ziemann, in contrast, builds up dense webs of tiny lines in Kutztown Pines and Back Woods Maine, surrounding a strong central shape with a soft blur of texture. In the context of mostly demure black and white, Harkins’s Last September—a color image of a small cataract in rocky terrain— seemed almost garish. A stronger sense of focus, a hallmark of Tanis’s still lifes, would have given these works on paper more impact. Jane Haslem Gallery, 2025 Hillyer Place NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. Telephone (202) 232-4644. Email

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2008, Volume 25, Number 2