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Life and Death in the Allegorical Garden

Photographer Spotlight

A short film by Michael Kurcfeld for Los Angeles Review of Books


In the hands of another, these scenes might have become exercises in bland decoration, but Marcuse’s compositions hum with crispness and discoverable detail.

At first glance, the New York photographer’s large, richly colored pictures of fruit rotting on the ground look like details of antique tapestries. Seesawing between the gorgeous and the grotesque, the work has more in common with Cindy Sherman’s mold and mucus landscapes. Marcuse’s densely packed images are just as wild and obsessive; despite their obvious, unnatural staging, they feel almost alarmingly out of control. Everything here is overripe and swarming. Cicadas, snakes, a bat, and a desiccated frog nestle among dead leaves, along with wrinkled, decaying apples as fleshy and pale as bloated corpses.

Marcuse’s photographs are ultimately more conceptual than narrative, and her references tend toward the painterly. Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights casts a long shadow — there’s even a snake slithering through one of her photographs. The tradition of vanitas paintings comes to mind as well, with overly ripe fruits and half-eaten treats symbolizing the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death.
There’s something to be said for an impeccable still life, a carefully composed scene of blooming flowers and ripe, luscious food. But there’s a reason that the form’s name in French is nature morte: things that don’t move are either inanimate or dead. A long tradition of beauty springs from the well of decay.

In ‘Fallen No. 182’ (2011) pomegranates, the ancient symbol of fecundity, lie split open and losing their seeds in a bed of grapes, plums and leaves—the reds, purples and greens reminiscent of Marie Cosindas’s palette, although the scale and subject are quite different.