Paulette Tavormina’s Photographs Come Alive in “Seizing Beauty”

Photo: Cornucopia, 2014.

The still life is one of the most bourgeois genres of art. Embracing the conventional attitudes that equate materialism with success, the still life most commonly depicts commonplace objects from the man-made and natural worlds. In doing so, it takes objectification to the next level. Rather than turn a living being into an object, it invokes the reverse. Perhaps it might be perverse to fetishize an object to the point of giving it “life” through the application of modes of painting that are designed to seduce the eye, the heart, and the mind.

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Although still lifes first appeared in ancient Greco-Roman art, they went dormant for well over 1,500 years before arising anew in the lowlands of Europe during the sixteenth century at the very time a new merchant class was coming to the fore. As this small but prosperous middle class began to assert it’s self, it found solace in contemplation of the world it knew best. The very idea of elevating the commonplace objects of life to the veneration of art, once reserved for the church and state, is bourgeois at its core.

Vanitas VI, Reliquary, After D.B., 2015, Digital pigment print, 1/7, 24 x 24 inches

As the middle class grew in power and prestige, so did their arts catch on with those who were prosperous enough to indulge in these works. A genre was born and quickly began to flourish in both the market and the academy. With a vibrant and vital 600-year legacy, the still life continues to invoke the idea that we can somehow eternally preserve the temporal world.

New York-based painter Paulette Tavormina understands this impulse and embraces it in the form of photography. Her still lifes are intimate, intricate images replete with flora, food, and artifacts. They are so perfectly rendered it’s easy to forget that they are photographs. Her luscious, dense, and opulent images will sweep you away and take you into another world, one that exudes the pure pleasure of living in a sighted world.

Fish Bone After PC

In celebration, the Snite Art Museum at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, presents Seizing Beauty: Photographs by Paulette Tavormina, the artist’s first museum exhibition, on view now through November 27, 2016. In conjunction with the exhibition, Monacelli Press has released a book of the same name. Made over a period of six years, the photographs recall the works of masters including Francisco de Zurbarán, Adriaen Coorte and Giovanna Garzoni.

It is the masters that call to Tavormina, inspiring her journey as a photographer. As she observes, “Standing in front of these paintings at The Metropolitan Art Museum in New York or The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I am struck by their strong emotional resonance, their ability to transcend time and place. I imagine Coorte, Zurbaran, Garzoni, and their contemporaries as they gathered worldly treasures and quotidian objects to tell of newfound wealth, passion, and the inevitable passage of time. The essence of these paintings lingers with me as I gather my own flora, fauna, butterflies and treasured antiques to create the romantic vignettes within my photographs.”

Botanicals, Peonies, and Wisteria, 2013

In Seizing Beauty, Tavormina does just that. Her meticulous creations are perfectly lit so as to erase the machine that is the camera from view. In doing so, she continues along a path, one that reverses the physical world in its most cultivated forms, seducing us into the pleasures that viewers have felt while gazing upon the still life paintings, century after century after century.

Tavormina reveals, “Years from now, I hope that the photographs I create will affect someone as deeply as the Old Masters’ paintings have affected me. In one of these paintings, the artist included the words ‘Eram Qvod Es.’  The translation resonates within me:  ‘Once I was what you are now.’”

All photos: © Paulette Tavormina, American, born in 1949, courtest of Snite Art Museum at the University of Notre Dame.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.