Size matters. Seeing Jonathan Queen’s mural, “Fresh Harvest,” on Kroger’s corporate headquarters downtown in reproduction is nothing like standing in front of it. (It’s visible from Walnut and Central Parkway.)
Queen, who is represented by Miller Gallery, is primarily known for his small-scale still life paintings. When asked to submit a design for the commission, his first thought was, “Well, I have been saying for years that I wanted to paint bigger. . ..”
I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that “bigger is better,” but in this case, I come close to it. If the 48’ x 90’ trompe l’oeil* (literally “fool the eye”) still life were easel-sized, it would be still be amazing, but the composition wouldn’t pack the wallop that it has as it covers an entire wall.
Because of size, “Fresh Harvest” is wonderfully bombastic despite its humble subject. And still life has traditionally been considered a humble subject. In the hierarchy established by the powerful French Academié de Beaux Arts in the 17th century, history painting was considered the most important followed by genre painting, portraiture, then still life, which just beat out landscape.
Queen purchased the produce at his local Kroger in Anderson Township for his trompe-l’oeil depiction of nature’s bounty — fruits and vegetables picked at the peak of perfection. Each piece is luscious, glistening with droplets of water, and sensuous. They spill out of a farmer’s traditional wooden crate in this site-specific image. Queen uses the vantage point of the viewer, below the mural, and the angle of the sun to heighten the realism.
Because of the location of the sun, cucumbers, carrots, and ears of corn projecting over the edge of the crate cast rather phallic shadows. Symbolizing the feminine principle, and also in the foreground, are an artichoke, orange, and a green pepper that is especially sexy.
Queen says, “The idea for this painting symbolizes the tradition of Kroger bringing fresh produce to the community.” Of course, the subject is ideal for its patron, but the Kroger execs probably don’t see the mural in historical context as related to the vanitas still lifes of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters, classical European painters Queen acknowledges as being influences.
Queen’s precursors’ exquisitely painted fruits, vegetables, and flowers came with a moralistic message: life is brief. In these still lifes, the implication was that those perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables and flowers in full bloom would eventually rot and die. Not such a great message for Kroger except to say “eat up and come back for more.”
Under the aegis of ArtWorks, Queen worked with a team of apprentices, ranging in age from 16 to 21, and two teaching artists, for nine weeks in mostly 90° weather to complete the tour-de-force painting. It was dedicated on August 28, 2012.
“As a child, I remember being amazed by large scale murals,” recalls Queen. “My hope is that this this mural will inspire the community and the generations to come.”
Karen S. Chambers
*Cincinnatians know this style because of Richard Haas’s mural on the Brotherhood Building on Central Parkway. The brick wall of the building is dematerialized, replaced by his painting of a marble statue of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus in an elaborate classical setting. Interestingly, Kroger commissioned this in 1983.
Jonathan Queen’s next show opens Friday, November 9 at Miller Gallery. He will be showing recent paintings alongside fellow Cincinnati painter Rob Jefferson.
We were talking about this mural last week. Compelling. Thanks for a good story about its origins.
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