A dead bird lies in a glass case, eyes closed, feet curled. A handful of Christmas beetles crawl across a skull.
In her exhibition of new paintings and installation, Michelle Molinari explores a long-held human impulse: to press pause on the never-ending cycle of decay.
The exhibition title, Mimesis, describes the imitation of life in art. In particular, Molinari is referencing the Platonic notion that for every bird, horse and tree there exists an Idea-bird, Idea-horse and Idea-tree upon which their corporeal counterparts are modeled. A painting of a bird, then, is at third-hand to the true ‘original’, which exists only in the mind of God.
In Molinari’s practice this mimesis, the reproduction and imitation of objects, occurs across a number of processes. Close, meticulous observation is at the heart of her work, and painting, casting and taxidermy take place side by side in her studio. Having worked directly with taxidermy since 2012, Molinari sources specimens from aviaries and breeders; also road kill and deceased farm animals. Mostly these are small and delicate—Molinari says she gravitates towards birds because of their beauty and fragility—but when we Skype there’s an entire horse in her studio, covered in a pink blanket.
In the taxidermy process, the cured skins of birds and mammals are painstakingly stretched over a hand-made form, made to the precise measurements of each creature’s body. Interestingly, while the birds in Molinari’s paintings are perfectly preserved, they don’t imitate life like the animals in museum exhibits: they are all quite clearly dead. Molinari says this is “a deliberate decision to reference the physicality of the death that has occurred—using death to imitate death.” Using polyurethane, the artist casts skulls and bones, the byproducts of this process; also beetles, their patterns delicately painted on to the plastic. These objects, the imitations of imitations (in Plato’s order of things), are then arranged against a backdrop to be the subjects of a further closely-observed reproduction on canvas.
Still-life painting, of course, has its own close acquaintance with death. The style flourished in 17th century Holland, during the Dutch Golden Age, when colonial trade routes flooded the country with wealth. Within the exquisite, hyper-realistic paintings of banquet tables crammed with imported luxuries, flower-vases holding exotic blooms, and ‘dead game’ representing the comfortable estate life of the upper class, reminders of mortality are ever-present. Skulls, clocks, hourglasses, wilting flowers, decaying fruit: everywhere motifs to impress upon viewers the fleeting nature of life and wealth.
In present political and ecological climates, the parallels are evident: we’ve never been more wealthy or technologically advanced, but our position is fatally precarious. The impulse to preserve, to create a record, is ever more critical if we are to retain what might otherwise be lost. Amidst the sequence of reproductions that comprise Molinari’s practice—the re-created forms, the staged arrangements—this kernel of truth is there in each visual reminder of finality.
Catalogue Essay by Anna Dunnill 2019