ART REVIEW: A Squirrel That Can Dive Anywhere It Likes
By Benjamin Genocchio
Published: March 26, 2006
What makes someone an artist?
When it comes to painting and sculpture, the answer is self-explanatory: an ability to paint or sculpture. But what about when you make installation art, or work with new media, like so many of the students enrolled in art schools? In these instances it is more about an ability to channel imagination, flair and ambition.
But how can you teach someone to use his or her imagination? You can't, although you can certainly foster creative and independent thinking, and then teach practical skills to execute ideas. From here it is a process of trial and error in the studio, and intense examination of the work of other artists. Artists have always learned by imitation.
The Purchase College School of Art and Design trains young artists. Like other art schools in the region, the school stages regular exhibitions of the work of contemporary artists at the school gallery in an effort to expose students to the latest ideas and trends in contemporary art. Christopher Taggart of San Francisco is showing this month.
Born in New Jersey in 1973, Mr. Taggart has risen quickly in the art world. He shows with Ace Gallery in Los Angeles, and has had his artwork included in several important national group exhibitions. But perhaps the most interesting thing about his brief biography is that he has a degree in physics, along with other degrees in the fine arts. Not too many artists can boast that.
Mr. Taggart brings to his work an intense curiosity for optical illusion, geometry, proportion and perspective. By way of example, dominating the present show is an enormous, 17-and-a-half-foot-long, collagelike sculpture of a squirrel assembled from nearly 6,000 photographs of tiny details of a small stuffed squirrel toy. Each of the images evidently corresponds to the geometric division of the squirrel into small triangular units.
So how did he do it? The artist began by marking the body of the stuffed toy squirrel at triangular intervals with little globules of colored glue. He photographed each section and then had 5-by-7-inch photographic prints made of each of the details. From here it was a process of puzzling through the photographs and reconstituting the squirrel with a pair of scissors and a full pail of adhesive.
At first glance, the squirrel looks terrifyingly real. When I walked into the exhibition at the gallery here I immediately wanted to run for my life. Radically scaled up and suspended midair, it looks like it is diving toward you or in free fall after having lost its footing. Look out! You can imagine it bouncing around and smashing things.
So why did the artist choose to reconstitute a squirrel, and why make it so large? What exactly is going on here? Several years ago an artist in Chicago crossed a rabbit with a jellyfish, resulting in a green rabbit that glowed in the dark. That was original and inventive, if a little ethically dubious given the current debate on genetic research. Is this the kind of thing that Mr. Taggart is gesturing toward?
Mr. Taggart seems to have little interest in genetics, medical research on animals or anything to do with animals at all. His interest is in different forms of imaging technology and what happens when you translate images and objects from one medium to another. Here, he is exploring the translation of a three-dimensional object into another three-dimensional object using a two-dimensional medium.
Several of Mr. Taggart's previous projects mine similar lodes. He has recreated a sculpture of a doll out of photographic prints of a real doll encased in resin; used magnets and a magnetic field to produce mechanized drawings; and created optical illusions of people by using mechanical apparatuses and video equipment. He plays in each case with imaging technology to make the familiar look strange.
More recently, the artist has been making large-scale drawings of people with the same name as his based on their images that he found on the Internet. Using a computer, the artist divided the images into 5,000 pixels, each of which was classified according to brightness and then translated into a drawing with tiny circles. The final portrait is a composite of different shaded colored circles.
A half-dozen portraits of other Christopher Taggarts (one of them a woman) are showing here. The portraits have an ethereal beauty that is precious yet detached. The figures look like ghosts, colorless and effete, drifting in and out of focus depending on how close you get to them, or where you are standing in the gallery. At other times they resemble actual breathing people. They befuddle the senses, much like that scary, monstrous squirrel hovering nearby.