Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be a sincere source of creativity. That tenet is confirmed by “Still[ed] Life: Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis” at the Taft Museum of Art.
In collaboration these two area artists (Parker is an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and heads the ceramics program, and Davis is an adjunct professor) translated some of the treasures of the Taft into white-glazed porcelain sculptures. Their 10 busts of the neo-classical sculptor Hiram Powers’ marble bust of Alphonso Taft, half-brother of William Howard Taft, are the clearest examples of art imitating art. Using 21st-century technology, they reproduced them exactly but on a smaller scale. The original measures 24 3/8” x 16 3/8” x 10”, but the Parker/Davis busts are all approximately 12” x 7” x 5 1/2”. They are presented individually on porcelain sconces, which are about 10 ½” high.
Rather than leaving their versions white, as the original bust, they added a second element, also referencing the Taft collection: surface decoration borrowed from 18th-19th European ceramic works. It’s both tempting and daunting to go off on a hunt for their specific references.
The sculptures are painstakingly hand painted with the designs overlaid on the surface, like a tattoo. Sometimes the base of the bust is decorated, leaving the bust itself white, and then they flip it so the bust is covered with pattern and the base is untouched. Sometimes they use the surface decoration logically, painting a bib or blindfold, which echoes the neo-classical convention of blank eyes for portrait busts. But in a more playful use of the patterns, the artists disregard the form entirely. For example in one bust, Chinoiserie flowers cover half of Taft’s face and extend down his shoulder and breast.
In addition to these riffs on the Taft bust, there are six luscious still life arrangements. The wall text (as always the Taft excels at providing didactic material) suggests the artists are intrigued by the natural order of things. They have assembled naturalistic fruits and fauna, including birds, turtles, a couple of lobsters, and shrews with disturbingly human-like paws, into vertical cornucopias, as high as 20 ½”.
By presenting such a broad selection of life, Parker and Davis’s work alludes to Renaissance Wunderkammers, cabinets of wonder, which were collections of curiosities from natural history (sometimes faux), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art, and antiquities. They are considered precursors to the modern museum.
Their arrangements can also be interpreted as memento mori, Latin for “remember your mortality.” This theme fascinated 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters. Their still lifes are overflowing with ripe fruits and vegetables, flowers in full bloom, and living creatures. Their very fullness portends the decay and rot that will claim them so quickly.
The museum’s “Still Life with Tilted Basket of Fruit, Vase of Flowers, and Shells” (1640-1645) by Balthasar van der Ast (b. 1593-94 — d. 1657) is an excellent example of this genre. The Dutch artist depicted 32 species of flowers, eight different fruits, 11 types of shells, three insects, two spiders, two lizards, and one parrot.
Although the Taft does not own any ceramic works by Bernard Palissy (French, b. c. 1510-d.1589), it’s impossible to ignore the visual linkages between his work and that of Parker and Davis. He was known for his hyper-realistic ceramic compositions of flora and fauna, which he cast from life and painted naturalistically.
Parker and Davis’s still lifes are almost devoid of color, except for the decorative patterns used sparely. The focus is on the form, reinforced with the inclusion of faceted objects that are purely abstract in addition to those realistically rendered living things.
When discussing works made in any of the traditional craft mediums—glass, wood, fiber, metal, and clay—it’s always tempting to discuss how things are done. In the case of Parker and Davis, it’s not the ceramic process that intrigues but rather how they reproduce their models so precisely. Their technique harkens back to an 18th-century method: the pointing machine. (For a detailed explanation of how it works, see Wikipedia.org: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointing_machine.) It was invented by the French sculptor and medalist Nicolas-Marie Gatteaux (1751-1832).
Per the Wikipedia entry, the pointing machine is “a contraption of brass or stainless steel rods and joints, which can be placed into any position and then tightened.” This measures the object, and those dimensions determine the depth of carving needed to replicate the original. This may require hundreds of points. Using this machine, a sculptor could make as many multiples of the original as desired, but only on the same scale.
The contemporary version of a pointing machine involves a three-dimensional scanner to make an electronic file of the object. That file directs a rapid prototyping machine to reproduce it at any size. With a model that is absolutely faithful, a mold can be made and any number of multiples produced at any scale.Too often in the craft mediums, technique dazzles, eclipsing aesthetics. Here it serves the artists well.
It’s a small show with little variety—just 10 nearly identical busts of Alfonso Taft and six still life sculptures—but Parker and Davis pack in a lot to think about.
Dear Karen and Aeqai:
Thank you for the insightful review of Katie and Guy’s exhibition. We are very pleased with the work they’ve done for the Taft.
I loved that you picked up on the connection between the 3D scanning technology and 19th-century pointing machines.
I just wanted to mention that Alphonso Taft was actually the father of William Howard and Charles Phelps Taft (who was William Howard’s half brother).
We do, by the way, own one object that is attributed to Bernard Palissy (along with Philibert De l’Orme)–a 1555 Saltcellar. It’s not one of the kind you describe, but lovely nonetheless.
Thanks again for contributing to the discussion of art in the Cincinnati community!
Assistant Curator, Taft Museum of Art