AWAYFebruary 21, 2011
A friend teased me not long ago about my critical writing being based on a propensity for habitual list-making. He must’ve been right, because here we go again: who are the top five unknown treasures of the Bay Area art world? That is, who are the top artists who live here and do amazing work that is supported nationally or even internationally, but who are essentially unknown here or, if known, are not widely known to live here?
Here’s my list: The celebrated children’s book author and artist J. Otto (of Olive the Other Reindeer fame); the painter and former tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy (of Ed Hardy clothing); the constructor of photographs Keith Cottingham (who has shown at Ronald Feldman, in New York, for over a decade); the public artist Ned Kahn (MacArthur genius award winner, best known locally for his tornado machine at the Exploratorium); and Chris Taggart, longtime resident of Berkeley, now exhibiting his first Bay Area solo show after more than a decade of representation by ACE Gallery, in Los Angeles.
One definition of leap is to take an action without knowing what the outcome will be; Taggart is a sculptor of leaping imagination. He begins his enormously labor-intensive projects without certainty where the rules he makes up will ultimately take him. Bananawar, which he began working on in 2008 and completed in 2011, is the tour de force in this show, a horizontal portrait of a jellyfish etched into dyed aluminum, ten feet long. The artist invented a kind of circular drill bit that, in combination with his weight leaning into it, makes perfect silvery circular cuts. With placement meticulously planned, thousands of these precise loops, in varying sizes from one to eighteen inches, come together to form the image. When realizing what one is looking at, the viewer recognizes that, impossibly, the jellyfish is composed of images of bananas and wrenches, à la Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Another set of works also involves the creation of images through accumulation of circles. In these cases, this is accomplished with colored inks on paper rather than excised metal. There are two works from a series titled Self-Portrait as a Ghost (2004), in which Taggart has searched for pictures of other Chris Taggarts online, downloading and reproducing them. Using a program that abstracts the images into pixels that he translates into perfect circles using a compass, the resulting works come together from a distance as recognizable portraits, while up close they dissolve into hazy ghosts of an image.
The most dramatic piece in the gallery is titled (The Biggest) Chickenemone.1 Dated from 2005 to 2009, the enormous tree-like object began with a mold of a chicken’s leg. The artist then had other versions of the original small object made, some as large as a yard or more, some less than half the size of the actual animal’s foot. He then built his tree by creating branches working from larger to smaller. It is at once hilarious and a little nightmarish when the trunk of the tree is most dinosaur-like, scaly and with a scythe-like toenail.
There are two of his woven, mosaic photographs that, using formulas beyond my understanding, expand and abstract images under the headline: “Digital technology overcomes time itself.” One of these photographs is a car’s rear-view mirror that reflects many other cars captured over time, and another is of an artist friend holding many of her works, again over time. Several of his signature 3-D woven objects are on display: a carrot and a turkey leg, re-created in photographs; and a portion of a football remade in cloth and kept inflated by a Rube Goldberg pump. Finally, there is a large and strange work in the downstairs gallery. Two television screens show the rough and scattered drawings of a pair of eyes open, closing, and closed. Throughout the opposite wall and elsewhere in the space, one realizes, are the components of the video image, synthesized by a crude set of clunky mechanical devices and a kinetic convex mirror, and fed into the live video. It is titled Portrait of my Wife (2010) and is remindful of Alan Rath’s many portraits of his wife’s eyes, but in Taggart’s case, it takes place in Toontown.
Taggart is often thought of as the lesser known of a triad that includes two other artists, Tim Hawkinson and Tom Friedman. This is a classic case of simultaneous discovery; I asked Taggart how he felt being cast as Alfred Russel Wallace to their Darwin. His only response was to request that I point out that his work is much less expensive. Such modesty and wit suffuses this exhibition. This is a debut in San Francisco that is long overdue, and greatly welcome.
AWAY is on view at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, in San Francisco, through March 5, 2011.
1. An earlier version of the piece was shown at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2004 in a show I curated.