Henry Taylor at Blum and Poe
In the large front room of Blum and Poe, Henry Taylor has laid furrowed rows of sod, plain dry dirt, and a grand dining table and chandelier. Surrounding this mise en scene are large-scale portraits, which I learn from the press release are taken from WPA photographs of farm workers. The setting speaks well to the claims made in the PR, of religiosity and empire: this could be an empty last supper, and also the aristocratic South dining off the labor of slaves (indeed, the pairing of table and furrows nicely suggest the origins of much American wealth directly and indirectly in slavery). The people are posed on the land, similar to the farm represented in the gallery, and in front of churches; and the paintings have titles such as That Was Then (a man with the word “BOY” painted on the canvas around him) and Everybody’s Momma and Stand Tall – Y’all (a black man and a horse or mule with a giant white hand in the background, as if to sweep the pair away).
I’m a little confused by the furrowed topsoil and the fancy dinner setting. Well, not confused really, because the reference to this country’s economic history as being based in plantation slavery is obvious. I’m confused because it seems too obvious. Heavy-handed as the message of his installation seems however, these paintings by Taylor are sweet and affecting and potent.
Taylor’s use of the land is powerful, and I remember these furrows throughout the exhibition. The fine table the artist has placed on top and the crystal chandelier and the damask tablecloth are nice, too, but this ground mimicking a farm or a plantation is great. The artist is using repetition and the grid to break with Formalism. Physically, as sculpture, the furrows are wonderful – like Minimalist art with politics and psychology. Not shiny, chromium steel, but brown dirt. Simple, homely, earth. Soil. Dry now, but capable, with the labor of man, with the labor of people, of bearing life, of bringing food to the table.
A pair of leather work gloves are cast aside on the dirt as though someone has walked off; leaving this land for – supper? To attend school? For eternity – fleeing North to the city?
We had a conversation in front on Henry Taylor’s The “We” Hours, my friends Olga, Tiffany, David and I, first considering the central figure in the painting as a power figure in relation to the flanking figures. (In fact, The “We” Hours is two paintings, one atop another; the smaller central canvas is somehow fixed to the surface of the larger.) The central male, gazing forthrightly (confrontationally?) off the canvas into our eyes, appears to dominate the two female figures, both of whom look off the painting and away. This arrangement, plus the superimposition of male over female, figured into our analysis as a reference to misogyny.
Energetically we debated the value of knowing about an artist to understanding the artist’s work; we were not able to come to a no-shades-of-grey judgment in favor or against specific knowledge.
In The “We” Hours, the apparent joining of hands on the left might be taken as something sweet – a man and a woman holding hands; it can also be a brutal, if slight, gesture of rubbing out by the man of the woman.
If the central male figure is a stand-in for the artist, then does this painting represent his feelings about women? If the entire painting is that surrogate, then do we see a man struggling with his feelings, torn, or balanced between primacy of his male self and his need/desire to join with a woman, and/or with his female self? It’s funny that the women seem remarkably disinterested in whatever the man is “going through,” and given that the ladies are looking away (are they disenchanted? exasperated? patient?), I wonder if he is an uninvited guest. Whose “We” hours are these, anyway?
Tiffany mentioned seeing someone who looked like the central figure at the reception, and we debated who it might be, finally deciding that it might/must be a mutual friend, Andy Robert; a man who is not dominating, nor misogynistic, and indeed is one of the gentle, sweet souls of the community. I wondered then, and now, what this information does to my understanding of the painting.
Then our conversation got exciting. Henry Taylor reveals much about human nature in this painting, as he does in other paintings in the show. Taylor challenges us to move beyond a reliance on recognizable types in contemporary representation, instead inviting us to trust our own judgment and to employ empathy. Like many artists who paint from life, Taylor drops faces and bodies he sees on the streets and among his friends into painted characters without regard to context. “But,” as one of the voices among us suggested, “maybe there is gentleness in our presumed painted potentate.”
In a side conversation with Tiffany and David, I overheard Olga saying that “Henry and I sat one afternoon, and he tried to sketch me. But it just went all to hell so we sat and talked instead.” Her point was the Taylor is always drawing and sketching people, and this shows in the work. Taylor is able to render a person exactly: with the slightest of means, using rough and gestural brush strokes, this artist imbues his figures and faces with ambiguity that is truly human.
Elsewhere in the show, the paintings resemble scenes from everyday life, with occasional nods to the history of painting. I find a lot of David Park in Henry Taylor’s paintings, in his casual yet apt application of paint, and in his close observations of faces and bodies. Taylor’s distortion of the foreground / background relationship, as in Not Alone and Watch Your Back, also shows an awareness of the earlier painter’s work, as does his manipulation of physical space in the paintings.
A modest-size sculpture, I Started When I Was Young, caused me to question my understanding of “everyday life,” and to see Taylor’s exhibition as more consistent than I supposed in its messages of social and political challenge and anger, and of personal trial and dignity.
This sculpture is made from a tall, narrow wood cabinet that has photos at the back of each shelf. On top of this cabinet are a pair of boxing gloves and a Bic lighter, which is kind of hidden beneath the gloves. The sculpture is humble and personal and poignant and political all at once. Seeing the lighter hidden made me think about Taylor’s title for the piece: “I started when I was young” is a phrase often used by people who smoke cigarettes, but the presence of boxing gloves seems apposite to this explanation. I think next of fighting and of flames, and (because my age matches closely the age of the artist) I think of the social unrest in the early 90s in Los Angeles, in our shared early adulthood, when parts of the city burned. Those fires that were spread by lawlessness were begun in anger, and for those who felt it then, that anger would have started when they were very young.
That my own response to I Started When I Was Young when I first looked at the sculpture was to wonder if the faces pictured in it are vintage news photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X disturbs me. I really don’t know who the people are. Isn’t my ignorance about these black faces a contemporary version of “they all look alike to me”? The apparent heavy-handedness of Henry Taylor’s work in this show begins to make sense to me… I see it this way because I am white.
I can’t quite figure out the names that Taylor has given the three rooms of his exhibition: “Principal,” “Probation” and “Detention” are printed in black on the glazed door to each room. I think they must be important to the artist, but why is not clear to me. If these titles are a reference to the travails of education, specifically in the life of an African-American person, the paintings and sculptures do not seem to support this.
Henry Taylor is on view at Blum and Poe through March 30, 2013.