All is Vanity


L-R: "Requiem Tapestry," "Vanity of Vanities" dress

To understand the concept of Vanitas, a popular genre of seventeenth century Dutch Master paintings, is to more fully appreciate Kimberly Riner’s latest body of work entitled Impermanence. 

Vanitas is strongly associated with Memento Mori (Latin for ‘remember you must die’) where paintings offer a symbolic representation of the transience of this world. The inspiration for the name ‘Vanitas’ comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ Nothing lasts and nothing can sustain against decay and death. It is an austere message where motifs represent the transience of wealth (gold, purses, and jewelry); knowledge (books, spyglass, maps, and pens); pleasure (food, wine cups, and fabrics); and, of course, decay (skulls, flowers, timepieces, and guttering candles).

Ultimately, Impermanence, will be shown at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center Gallery in October, but I catch up with Kimberly during her August ON: View Artist in Residency at Sulfur Studios on Bull Street. Two afternoons a week she has invited community members to join her in making ceramic tiles which she will wire together to form a grief quilt. 

As I walk in, I meet Tina Gilbert who is working on a tile in remembrance of her husband who died last September. Gilbert has pressed items important in his life into the black stoneware clay. For example, she has included his Dartmouth pin, an embossed sign from the cheese company he owned in Wisconsin, and a paw print from his beloved dog. Gilbert’s tile will be fired to a rich matt black and be one of many included in the pinwheel-inspired quilt entitled A Time to Heal.

Riner received her Master of Fine Art from GSU in Sculpture and is a part time ceramics instructor at both the Savannah and Statesboro campuses of GSU, additionally serving as Visual Arts Director at the Averritt Center for the Arts in Statesboro. She tells me, “My work is about mortality and a lot of it is about grief, from personal experiences.” Her mother died when she was twenty-two and her brother took his own life while she was in graduate school. “I’ve also looked at various cultures and tried to let their grieving practices influence my work. The Vanitas and Memento Mori still life oil paintings are full of iconography and symbolism such as skulls, butterflies, flowers, and bugs. They really speak to me. How can I recontextualize some of these into 21st century reconfigurations?” Riner answers that question by walking me through some of the multi-dimensional ceramic pieces she has created which incorporate other materials and elements such as LED lighting, sound, and projections.

First is a 14-foot by 4-foot installation of dying flowers sculpted in black clay above a rectangle of white rock salt that represents a grave. “I was thinking of how we put flowers on graves and the rich tradition of salt as a commercial commodity that relates to trade and wealth…The Dutch Masters were trying to point people away from worldly goods to focus on spiritual things,” Riner explains. She added one white flower in the center to represent hope and included a sound element (her twin daughters were music majors and music is important to her family). Thus, the gravely solemn and transcendent Lacrimosa from Mozart’s last requiem was ‘stretched out’ to make it more abstract while retaining its meaning.

Another piece, entitled Allegory to a Still Life is comprised of a random pile of ceramic Vanitas objects such as musical instruments, skulls, jewelry, bowls and cups, a crown, rotted fruit, and time pieces. The installation is about five feet in diameter and includes a projected video of popping bubbles – the ultimate reference to life’s impermanence. 

Riner next shows me a suspended installation made up of many ceramic butterfly shapes, tediously and painstakingly wired together to form a dress. “This is a dress that was born out of my mother not being present at my wedding,” she says, and explains how butterflies are another Vanitas painting symbol of resurrection and rebirth. The hanging dress is empty; the soul of the person is gone, and an LED light shines down inside of it. 

Much of Riner’s work include fabric elements which led her to think about making grief quilts. She shows me Requiem Tapestry comprised of different shards pieced together and where, if one looks closely, a skull can be discerned in the center. She tells me, “I was thinking about fragments of time, fragments of memory and different textures coming together.” 

Another piece called #Selfie Culture was inspired by thinking how her children (and so many of us) live through their phones. “I slip cast 120 cell phones and put a mirror decal on each so that you see yourself when you come up to the piece, but your view is distorted, which is very much what social media does.” The phone, is most definitely a Vanitas object!”

The current piece she is working on at Sulfur Studios references the many losses we have all enduring during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, her own children graduated college without an in-person ceremony. People have lost their loved ones, their friends. “But also, its losing experiences, and opportunities and jobs,” Riner says. “The project is about giving people the opportunity to honor those feelings. Art can take something intangible and make it tangible.” 

One community member who collaborated with Riner was going through recovery and was thinking of all the time and experiences she lost through her life choices. She brought her recovery medallion and pressed it into the clay. Another woman’s husband had died by suicide. Coincidentally, Riner’s mother was in recovery at the time of her death and, as aforementioned, her brother died by suicide. Those losses clearly fuel much of her current work. 

All participants have been asked to journal about the quilt tiles they have created, and when Impermanence is installed in October, Riner will put the journal on a pedestal so that people can read about the inspirations and add their own grief experiences. Meanwhile, be sure to stop by her Residency space at Sulphur Studios for her closing reception, part of Starland’s First Friday on September 3.

A Time to Heal, ON::View Artist in Residency at Sulphur Studios, 2301 Bull Street. Closing reception is Friday, September 3 from 5 to 9:00 p.m. The finished community project will be displayed during Riner’s upcoming exhibition, Impermanence, at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center Gallery in October. 

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