The still life is an artistic form that has captured the interest of Pieter Aertsen, Pieter Claesz, Diego Velázquez, Eugène Delacroix, and Giorgio Morandi, to name just a few. Boston-based artist Tara Sellios has also delved deeply into the construction of the still life and the ideas often associated with it—life, death, the question of permanence, and the intricate use of symbolism. What makes Sellios’s work different from that of past masters is her combination of material and medium.
Sellios uses photography—not painting—to make her work, capturing age-old still-life materials—eggs, glasses, fish, vegetables, and silver plates. Of her impetus to work with this genre, Sellios says, “Death has always possessed a significant presence within the history of art, ranging from altarpieces to the work of the Dutch still-life painters. Manifesting melancholic themes with beauty and precision, as these artists did, results in an image that is seductive, forcing the viewer to look, despite its apparent grotesque and morbid nature.”
Sellios most often replaces the delicate fruit-and-object arrangements of the traditional still life with butchered or skinned animal parts and carcasses. To further emphasize and complicate her exploration of material and medium, her works are broken into multiple frames—or pieces—hung one next to the other, some cut into as many as six parts. Her works Untitled No. 2 (from the series Impulses) (2012), Untitled No. 3 (from the series Seven Evil Thoughts) (2010) and Untitled No. 3 (from the series Lessons of Impermanence) (2009) exemplify Sellios’s seductively dark multiframe photographs. This method of presenting large-format photographs in a cut-up sequence is reminiscent of both film stills and painted canvases—two modes of artistic production not often captured or referenced together.
When asked about her attraction to photography, Sellios said: “The fact that a photograph can contain a totally fabricated scene was appealing to me. I feel the medium has a haunting, mysterious sort of quality to it that is different from any other. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, in a sense, a photograph is a document of an actual moment, frozen in time. The tableaux in the image actually existed at some point.”
Some of Sellios’s work pushes the still life in another direction. In Untitled No. 5 (from the series Retribution) (2011) and Untitled No. 1 (from the series Retribution) (2011), she uses the material tropes of the genre to create compositions that resemble those of abstract expressionist painters. Her abstract photographs-as-canvases are still balanced and intricate, like most still-life paintings, but while one looks at Untitled No. 5, the eye is drawn away from the individual carcasses of the fish and eels—slick with blood and unknown fluid—to the Medusa-like shape the composed carnage resembles.
Sellios has managed to simultaneously present delicacy and brutality with a macabre air. There is a freshness in her still-life photographs that immediately captures the imagination and constructs potential—at times nonsensical—narratives. Without neglecting the intricacies of her own time, Sellios has added another page to the history of the still life—giving anyone interested in art history more to think about.
Tara Sellios is a photographer living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. She has a BA in fine arts from the Art Institute in Boston, where she is currently an instructor in the department of photography. Sellios is represented by Gallery Kayafas, Boston, and her work has been shown in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Boston; Middlebury, Vermont; and New York.