Given the number of dead things that end up in Tara Giannini’s work it may seem slightly ironic that the discussion about to take place centers on beauty. Thankfully, outside the use of animals that are no longer alive, there aren’t enough parallels to warrant a photo comparison between her work and artist Damien Hirst’s maggot infested cow head. There may be people who are out of touch enough to launch the argument that that stuff is about beauty, but you can count me out of that crowd.
Surprisingly, it would be also be a mistake to say that Giannini’s work is about beauty. No doubt this is part of its meaning, but if we are to attempt to locate the term, it has to be said that her art is more specifically about drawing beauty from uncertainty. The uncertain beauty of a taxidermied bird, some gaudy plastic beads, and a golden angel, together creates an object that is greater than the sum of its parts.
On a practical level this is demonstrated by the assembling of plastics, butterflys, and insects etc, in order to build complex inter-relationships between these objects. Paint is a unfying medium in these works, a point which is demonstrated by the fact that the pieces do not function on composition alone, but are built from a virtuosity of paint handling that bridges some of the more unusual juxtapositions.
There is however, a lot more than technique to these works. Perhaps the easiest starting point to this part of the discussion is provided by Giannini’s use of taxidermided objects which speak to concepts of death, timelessness, and a desire to reconstruct or represent life. In this way, the work falls within the genre of Memento Mori, which comes from the Latin term meaning “remember you will die,” and broadly encompasses art making that reminds the viewer of their mortality.
Also falling within this genre, and an influence on Giannini are 17th century Dutch vanitas. Much like the work of the artist, these paintings represent the vanity of material possessions, and the impermanence of life. There are a myriad of symbols within these old master paintings that point to such ideas, few of which require a degree in rocket science to decode. Skull = death, wine = passing pleasure, big goblets = immoderate wealth. Similarly it is unlikely that Giannini intends the viewer to ponder the symbolism within her paintings indefinitely. Most of it is rather straight forward, and speaks to similar ideas, albeit with a slightly less didactic tone.
Now, a common misperception in relation to this past statement is the idea that the use of easily decodable imagery creates work that is in turn simplistic in nature. This is not at all the case. Giannini’s work simultaniously embraces and rejects materialism, and fleeting pleasure, while drawing upon a long history of object making and painting. In connection specifically to the artists moving position on material wealth, an interesting observation to be made is that at the same time that vanitas were being produced by Dutch and Flemish painters, so were lavish still lifes depicting expensive food, inanimate objects, and there is still much debate as to whether the patrons of this work were the upper or lower class.
It was this art that eventually lead to the 19th century penchant for collecting, which Giannini characterized as being defined by the desire to possess the natural world and recreate it in their homes.* Now the historical lineage of this idea naturally flows to trophy heads, so who knows if she’s willing to draw those contemporary connections, but given the fact that she proudly displayed a singing trophy head when I visited her studio last week (that subsequently malfunctioned and could not be turned off), I doubt she’ll mind.
As singing turkey heads tend to demonstrate, Giannini’s work is by and large a little more light hearted than the average Dutch still life and memento mori painting. Perhaps it is for this reason that I have never been able to be fully sympathetic to the artists recent studio woes which include being overrun with mice which ate many of her taxidermied animals. It’s hard not to see the fact that they managed to eat the ears off a prized armadillo, and yet stayed away from the accidental purchase of two taxidermied frogs who were standing around a pool table with cue sticks, as being, um, hilarious! A testament to the enduring power of taxidermy and art, she tells me the armadillo will easily be fixed with a tiara.