Christopher Taggart

Artist, Berkeley CA // April 2013
Often the work is based on a simple yet repetitive foundation that leads to a kind of complexity that has its own behavior. When it works best, the behavior outperforms my preconceptions, reveals something unexpected, and gives me a hint of how to make it work even better the next time.

The first thing you should know about Chris’s work is that his practice is not specific to any medium, ever. He jumps around a lot, letting his ideas dictate his choice in materials; but often his work utilizes ordinary objects or images that he then manipulates through systems of repetition. When we visited him at his Berkeley studio he had just finished his first public commission, a 50-foot tall engraving on aluminum in the new Veterinary Medicine Research Building at the University of California, Davis. He was also working on pieces for his solo show, Cuts and Splits, at Eli Ridgway Gallery, which is currently up until May 4th, 2013. These pieces included large-scale photographic image composites, engraved aluminum panels, and sculpture made from plastic molds. Upon entering Chris’s studio it’s initially very hard to tell what’s going on and where the work is. This is in part due to the fact that his CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, which he uses to make engravings, sits squarely in the middle of the space and dominates the view, but it’s also because Chris uses everyday objects and materials that do not take on a transformative quality until a work is completely finished. So coming in mid-process presented some challenges for me; I had to push myself to understand his methods and it was an effort to imagine what exactly his course of actions would result in.

While interviewing Chris he stated that much of his work is about trying to make sense of our fast-paced, overwhelming world and that “turning information overload in on itself to create intrigue and beauty seems like a worthwhile pursuit.” This statement got me thinking about the phrase “information overload” and what it means when the rate of change, especially concerning technological innovation, accelerates to a point that we can no longer adjust.

Over the last couple years I have had countless conversations about the impact of ever-increasing digital information and communication technologies, and more often than not these conversations are peppered with reoccurring words: anxiety, distraction, over-analysis, alienation, and depression. I think in many ways Chris’s work addresses the weight of these words in our daily lives and attempts to investigate the systems we’ve created by breaking them down into single objects or components that he then resurrects into unexpected forms. A perfect example of this is a recent digital photographic collage in which he dissected and recombined aerial photographs of 21 California state prisons that he had found and culled online. From far off, the work appears fixed and uncompromised, but up close it seems to jitter wildly— the unrelenting repetition, the claustrophobia of multiplication, and the hyper-intricacy give the viewer a sense that the work isn’t finished, that it will not yield to its borders and it will continue to grow. That rapid expansion can feel terrifying… sort of the way creeping ivy vines and spider webs are … and technological advancement, penal systems, population, communication modes, digital information… well the list goes on and on.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
In the broadest sense, I am just trying to make the most interesting things I can. Usually that involves a systematic manipulation of common everyday objects or images as a way to denature perception and recast it into something surprising or just plain beautiful to look at. Often the work is based on a simple yet repetitive foundation that leads to a kind of complexity that has its own behavior. When it works best, the behavior outperforms my preconceptions, reveals something unexpected, and gives me a hint of how to make it work even better the next time. When it works at its ABSOLUTE best, it makes you laugh a little too.

What mediums do you work with?
I work with whatever seems to fit the idea. Photos, paper, plastics, metals, video, electronics, plaster. I’ve been moving away from complicated and/or toxic materials and back to things that are more directly manipulated by hand. My favorite medium of late is photos and glue!

You have a very varied art practice in which you employ a vast array of materials, how do you go about choosing them?
I just strive to keep myself engaged and interested and the ideas determine the materials. I don’t want to make super permanent, heavy work; everything is so fast paced and overwhelming right now, so I’m striving to make work that is simple in its materiality but complex in labor. I also try to make things that I can physically handle as an individual. Big heavy stuff doesn’t interest me any more. Even if it is big I want to be able to handle it by myself. I’ve strayed from this a few times, and it sure makes life difficult. If I can’t take it apart and carry it up a flight of stairs on my own I don’t want to make it. All that being said, I just finished my first public commission, a 50-foot tall engraving on aluminum in a new building at UC Davis. It’s 13 panels and weighs a total of 600 pounds. If it’s a public commission I guess I can break my own rules!

In my research on you and your work, I noticed much has been made of your undergraduate work in physics. What do you make of that? Do you think your background in science directly influences your art?
I do have an undergraduate degree in science. But I also have one in art and a Masters in Sculpture. The phrase “science and art at the same time” is a bit of a monkey on my back. Of course my education influences my work, but equally so do my chickens, and the time I spend on my bike, and the fact that the world is so overwhelming, and how amazing it looks when you snorkel, and my ongoing meditation practice, and even what I had for lunch. I feel like today’s art world is credential-oriented to its own detriment. I have a real aversion to looking at someone’s work through the blinding aperture of their CV.

All that said, my art practice can’t help but be permeated by my education in physics. I think a lot about time and probability and how we make sense of the infinite heap of human experience. Physics offers some perspectives that I can’t ignore. I would have never started cutting up multiple images and recombining them if I hadn’t learned about probability distributions in quantum mechanics. But I’m of course not doing particle physics, and the work is not ABOUT quantum mechanics, and I doubt I use any more math than a carpenter. My practice is about getting an idea and seeing it through to try and see something new and interesting and beautiful.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Does personal history work its way into your practice?
Personal history is a weird term. Everything we know is in the past anyway right? Autobiography would mean my own story, which I don’t think is any more interesting that anyone else’s story, so I’m not really trying to tell it to anyone. I’m more interested in the general way we all try to make sense of things through the imperfect nature of our conditioned senses. The kind of self-portrait I’d like to make is one that could be a self-portrait of anybody else. But if there is one thing that is autobiographical it’s that I feel very overwhelmed. I’m not so much looking at narrative qualities in my work, instead it’s more about information overload and trying to make sense of a world inundated with technology and innovation. Turning information overload in on itself to create intrigue and beauty seems like a worthwhile pursuit.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
My day job is fixing up our little house. I tore the ceiling out of the living room this past year. It’s very meaningful to have a house of one’s own that you can make just the way you want… with your own hands.

Other than that I don’t have another career— for the last 12 or 13 years I’ve worked solely on my art. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I worked behind the fish counter at a market near my house for a couple years when working by myself all the time in the studio was just too isolating.

My art projects inevitably take longer to finish in the physical world than in my imagination, so I’m very blessed to have a spectacularly beautiful and generous wife who has supported me when artwork alone hasn’t.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
My inspiration comes in generalities that don’t necessarily correlate to or directly fuel the physical form of what I make. Lately I can’t get enough of Kora music (it’s a gourd-harp from Mali in West Africa). And I’ve been paying a good bit of attention to the sparkly things you see when you look at a bright light with your eyes closed. I have a vague sense that the curly, stringy, ropey way that lava solidifies (Pahoehoe) is going to work its way into my work somehow in the near future.Pruning fruit trees and thinning greens in the garden has a way of influencing idea creation, but I wouldn’t dare attempt to pick apart exactly how.
I also just finished rereading one of my favorite books, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. The combination of humor, time travel, and misguided perceptions of reality in that book always gets my ticker ticking.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’ve been rolling objects (mostly pieces of fruit and sports balls) around on a flatbed scanner to make these strange digital extrusion photographs. Honestly, the one piece I can’t wait to make, that I won’t have time for until after my upcoming show, is this: I’m going to roll the head of a plastic Burger King doll around on the scanner to make a sort of branching fire corral. Imagine swimming up to a coral while snorkeling and realizing the whole thing was constructed by little Burger King heads that had moved through space and left traces of themselves along the way, the same way coral polyps build hard calcium shells into forms that balance perfectly between order and chaos. I imagine it will be bonkers, but I can’t envision it and that’s exactly the kind of project I like to embark upon.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
I often work in a programmatic fashion where I set up a set of conditions that I then allow to behave on their own to create an artwork. I often have only a vague idea that the system will lead to something worthwhile. Systems with less certain outcomes often lead to the most interesting results. But I’ve embarked on projects that have absorbed months of my life only to fizzle out into mediocrity.

How do you navigate the art world?
With a 10-ton boulder of salt. The art world can be a frustrating place; it’s so much about creating a brand-based career around your own name and less about making the work. It’s all about the quantity of shows, reviews, mentions, and images out in the world; it’s all about building an arsenal to create a brand. It’s very confusing. Often art world institutions seem less dedicated to supporting the process of art making, and instead are keen to follow trends at the rate of the fashion industry. It’s an issue of pace— artists spend so much time and labor on their work, but institutions move on so quickly. It’s impossible for artists to keep up, and I’m not so sure they should.

Who taught you the most about art?
That’s a tough one. Does it have to be a person? I think I’ve learned most about art from walking, sitting, and swimming in nature and not thinking. It’s all about new observations, that moment when your perception has been expanded and new impressions are being made. If it really has to be a person, it would be Mississippi John Hurt, but I of course never met him. Sure wish I could have. Listening to his music, and also learning how to play it, is an ongoing reminder of what I see as truly artful. All he needed were six steel strings, two hands, and his own voice to channel something uniquely magical. On good days I can muster that kind of spirit a little bit in the studio, or at least try to.

Do you have a motto?
I don’t have a motto per se, but I have a couple of favorite quotes.

My father-in-law is a unique and wonderful man. He once wrote me a letter that had the following salutation that I committed to memory: “Easy come. Easy go. Sweat sweat sweat! Pay the price for the greatness.”

A friend of mine was working with his automotive business partner one day. They had a big work load ahead and the business partner said to my friend: “OK. Today we REALLY need to FOCUS on remaining FOCUSED!”

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
In March I finished a permanent commission, called Blue Column, for the new Veterinary Medicine Research Building at the University of California, Davis. It’s a 50-foot tall engraving on 13 anodized aluminum panels.

I have a solo exhibition, Cuts and Splits, at Eli Ridgway Gallery in San Francisco that is up until May 4th.

Where can people see your work?
Eli Ridgway Gallery
Ace Gallery (I don’t work with Ace any more however).

Photo Credit: the photos of Chris’ public work “Blue Column” at UC Davis are taken by the artist. All other photos are IN THE MAKE’s.