Paulette Tavormina’s Secretive Still Lifes

One look at a still life by Paulette Tavormina and the viewer is transported to the Dutch Golden Age, reminded of the drama of Italian Baroque, and challenged with the question, is that a painting or a photograph? Her works are in fact photographs, and they’re taken right in Manhattan at the artist’s Upper East Side studio, yet their contents—live crabs, cranberry beans, Chinese walnuts, and watermelon radishes, to name a few—suggest a distant locale, and her mastery of the genre in its traditional form, recalls another era. Tavormina’s ability to translate storied natura morta painting into contemporary photography is a feat, and her success lies in a fascination with Old Masters, experience as a food and prop stylist, and personal histories embedded in each work.

Tavormina cites master painters like Francisco de Zurburán, Giovanna Garzoni, and Adriaen Coorte as influences, and she often imitates elements of their masterpieces in some of her photographs. Quince, after G.G. refers to Garzoni’s Bowl of Citrons; Oranges, after F.d.Z., recalls Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, oranges and a Rose; Crabs and Lemon, after P.C. refers to Paul Cézanne’s Two Crabs; and Oysters, after W.C.H., refers to Still life with oysters, a rummer, a lemon and a silver bowl by Willem Claesz Heda. Each painting is one that Tavormina has encountered in person or through research, which she feels a connection to, whether it be nearby at the Metropolitan Museum, or during her travels to Italy and the Netherlands.

The fresh fruits, seafood, and other props found in Tavormina’s tableaux are constantly sourced from her favorite New York City outposts including the Union Square Greenmarket, shops in the flower district, and antique stores. Additionally, she draws from a collection of miscellaneous objects she has accumulated over the years, from bumblebees to rustic wooden tables from New Mexico, each item sentimentally linked to its origins and the untold story that led her to it. Tavormina once told Interiors Magazine, “They’re all little love stories, really, and they all have secret symbols.”

In her current exhibition that spans both Robert Klein Gallery locations in Boston, “Black & Bloom,” Tavormina presents her new “Botanicals” series. Inspired by 17th-century Flemish painter Jan van Kessel, this series takes a new perspective, observing exceedingly fresh-looking plant, flower, and insect specimens, from above. When asked if she would consider creating still lifes reflecting the present cultural zeitgeist, Tavormina replied that although she has considered it, the Old Master models offer more “romance,” and that fresh food has an undeniable appeal; in her words, “I like things to tell a story. Fresh food, food that goes bad, is more interesting to me, because it’s about abundance, and the beauty, but then it goes bad, it’s doomed. That’s what happens. It’s very human.”

“Black & Bloom: Botanicals” is on view at Robert Klein Gallery, Ars Libri, 500 Harrison Ave., Boston, Feb. 7th–Mar. 29th, 2014.

“Black & Bloom: Still Lifes” is on view at Robert Klein Gallery, 38 Newbury Street, Boston, Feb. 8th–Mar. 29th, 2014.

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