Seven Roughly Equal-Sized Paragraphs about Chris Taggart
by Renny Pritikin
Director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and the Fine Arts Collection at the University of California, Davis
I. Chris Taggart grew up living the childhood of an army brat even though his father wasn’t in the military. The back story isn’t hard to decipher: Taggart was born in Princeton, New Jersey but lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico until middle school, then in Northern Virginia until college. These migrations have to do with a father doing research in particle physics and then working for the Defense Department. Taggart himself attended William and Mary majoring in physics but with a minor in art and art history; he opted for the art and then got an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is married and lives with his wife in a cottage in the flats of Berkeley, CA, where Taggart keeps chickens in the back yard. His wife works in the container shipping industry, and through her work he is exposed to the enormity of that particular commerce, part of which is moving food around the globe. The theme of a good chunk of his work is, “Where Does Your Food Come From?”
II. The kudu is an African antelope and Kudu is the name of one of the works in the exhibition at CCA, Sacramento. Taggart has a growing body of work, including Kudu, in etched aluminum. He often builds the images from found sources, Archimboldo-like, and bananas make an appearance as often as not. They’re a good shape for simulating antlers and other parts of fauna, and they’re useful for their connotation of slapstick shenanigans. Bananas are also an integral part of the international movement of food from continent to continent. Taggart built the non-antler part of the kudu’s head from an image he found of a beached container ship, cargo askew and precariously balanced. It’s carefully concealed but there is a certain engagement with the real world’s ironies behind the surreal humor of these works.
III. We know we’re not supposed to look behind the curtain in Oz, but why? It’s because the world will be revealed as a human construct; the rules are in fact not timeless but arbitrarily set by someone to protect the secret of his authority. It’s true in Oz and it’s true here: the world is essentially an artistic invention. What we look at are accumulated centuries of aesthetic points of view. But it is arbitrary, could’ve been so many other ways. In the 19th century there was a moment when it was thought that gas flames, not telephones, would be the carrier of choice for voices over long distance (yes, it works). Chris Taggart makes art in which the rules of representing the world are revealed to be timidly banal. In the ocean a man-o-war jellyfish is made of cap and tentacles and stingers, but in Taggart’s studio, on the other side of the curtain, it’s plausibly made of wrenches and bananas.
III. My parents used to say “tin foil” when they meant “aluminum foil.” I have always been interested in how using linguistic anachronisms revealed a generational change. Artists today only use silver and gold foil to highlight the art historical gap between now and when such technique was common. From the window of my Amtrak commuter train, at dusk, the sun was catching curlicues of razor wire around a complexly staged, multi-tiered outdoor installation of high voltage electrical equipment. It shone, as though on fire; it was as though it were conceived for visual pleasure rather than security. Taggart uses aluminum for many of his works the way artists used to use silver: the way it both resists and gives way to the knife, how light snags on it, and how incisions in its surface change a certain softness into jagged crisps of light. Added to that is the use of patina to add melodrama: his surfaces can be darkened in many ways to make the etched image a form of sculptural monotype, a drawing in the gap between two and three dimensions.
IV. I recently had occasion to write about the artist Fred Tomaselli’s piece X Will Fade, which lays out many diagonal rows of small, narrow leaves to make a large x shape. All the leaves were painted green except the central ones, which were left free to age. After twenty years, they are a pale brown and form a kind of memento mori as well as a model for artists using time as a medium in art making. Taggart the once-almost-physicist extends this challenge by making objects that depict how space and time are intertwined and can be simultaneously stretched beyond comfortable perception. For example, in Portrait of a Photographer Holding Twelve of Her Portrait Photographs, Taggart uses a technique involving physically cutting up and recombining twelve different photographs into one. Similarly in People Looking at People, he makes a large collage of one hundred photographs in 360 degrees from the top of the Empire State Building, coming up with an abstracted image of horizons, people, buildings and sky. A similar process melded a deck of souvenir WWII battleship playing cards into one haunted image of a war ship.
V. What many of us love about art is how an artist can selectively incorporate aspects of the chaos of reality and fashion these pieces into a coherent whole. Many reassuring cultural productions work on this principle: the Rubik’s cube takes hopeless, anarchic color arrays and holds out the promise of lucidity. A related tack—taking chaos and restoring it to order—was taken by the artist Cornelia Parker, who suspended burned scraps of the original charred wood in the vague outline of arson-struck churches, Taggart’s installation, Portrait of my Wife, enacts a similar transformation. The visitor walks into a room whose walls are covered with apparently random black splotches floor to ceiling. A video camera, mirrors and lenses synthesize the muddle into a cartoony video image of Taggart’s wife’s eyes. A tour de force of fractured representation, the work implies that even our most intimate relationships are fashioned from random bits of information that our minds pull together to create subjective meaning.
VI. Many think of the glow-in-the-dark bunny. I think of the artist George Gessert in Oregon who since the 1980s has bred irises as living sculpture, their DNA his medium. Taggart has a body of Frankenstein-derived work as well, involving a labor-intensive photographic practice. His most dramatic work in this line was a three dimensional photo-recreation of a squirrel that ended up some thirty feet long. He had carefully divided its taxidermied body into hundreds of triangular plots, then used a special lens to photograph each section. Blowing up each photograph many times, he reassembled the beast as a hanging sculpture. For this exhibition the same technique was used to create a giant turkey leg and a football. However, the football has had its DNA monkeyed with, so that it is only slightly larger than life, but skewed so that one section is many times the size of the rest. To top it off—(I can hear Colin Clive exclaiming “It’s alive!”)—the thing slowly breathes in and out with the aid of a pump.
VII. I don’t remember one word of Werner Herzog’s poetic speculation about the wall drawings in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but I was transported by the phenomenon of a movie that consists of nothing but looking at and talking about art. It was certainly like being inside my own head, and I suspect also like those of most artists. Herzog’s cave dwellers had to trudge deep into dark, dangerous caverns to render their animal images; these pictures must’ve had a powerful purpose behind them. Taggart is a hiker in the Sierras, a birder, and urban farmer for his egg-laying “girls. “ His works can take hundreds of hours of planning and physical exertion to execute. He marks up the walls of modernism as comedic satirists from George Herriman to Philip Guston before him have done, recapitulating his obsessions and utterly contemporary address.