Henry Taylor at Blum and Poe

Henry Taylor Installation view, 2013 Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
Installation view, 2013
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor Installation View, 2013 Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
Installation View, 2013
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

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?

Henry Taylor The "We" Hours, 2012 Acrylic on canvas 73 1/2 x 131 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches overall (186.7 x 334 x 10.8 centimeters) Photo courtesy the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
The “We” Hours, 2012
Acrylic on canvas
73 1/2 x 131 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches overall (186.7 x 334 x 10.8 centimeters)
Photo courtesy the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

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.

Henry Taylor Not Alone, 2013 Acrylic on canvas 115 x 76 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches  Photo courtesy the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
Not Alone, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
115 x 76 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches
Photo courtesy the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

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.

Henry Taylor Another Wrong, 2013 Acrylic on canvas 116 x 75 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches  Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
Another Wrong, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
116 x 75 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor I Started When I Was Young, 2013 Boxing gloves, lighter, xerox, wood cabinet 48 1/4 x 12 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
I Started When I Was Young, 2013
Boxing gloves, lighter, xerox, wood cabinet
48 1/4 x 12 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor "Watch your back", 2013 Acrylic on canvas 87 1/2 x 77 1/2 x 2 inches

Henry Taylor
“Watch your back”, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
87 1/2 x 77 1/2 x 2 inches

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.

http://www.blumandpoe.com/exhibitions/henry-taylor-0#images

Henry Taylor Not Alone, 2013 Acrylic on canvas 115 x 76 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches  Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

Henry Taylor
Not Alone, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
115 x 76 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Blum and Poe, Los Angeles

8 Comments

  1. Thanks Geoff for recommending this show which I saw last week and was quite taken by the paintings especially Boy and the others in the room filled with dirt. His scale, use of color and the storytelling is dazzling.

  2. Geoff, I am an admirer of the fervor with which you both view and deconstruct the numerous cultural productions that make Los Angeles such an engaging place to live. I greatly revere the courage with which you attempt to question and reshape the methodology of how one approaches the question of how to access art. As acknowledged in its mission statement, your blog addresses “contemporary art that invites one to consider the object and seek understanding in the moment of looking.” I cannot tell you how much respect I have for someone who, especially in our contemporary present, acknowledges the temporality of a visual engagement and treats an object not as a thing with essential meaning, but one whose power is derived from an interaction within a moment. From the decentering of the self, to the discussion of psychopathic tendencies which has been of recent focus in the media, too much has been produced with the existential apocalyptic vision of our time.Your approach claims to be, “anti-nomian to the orthodoxies of art criticism and academics,” taking instead “a supportive approach.” While some question where this criticality has gone, others have jumped ship into the individual rowboats of positivist criticism. No doubt the practitioners of ficto-criticism and those comedic parodists who combat the institutions of art would revel in your negation of the negation.

    While it provides a particular dominance to human sight, I am largely an admirer of your conception of how to engage with art. However, I wonder how you situate and go about authenticating or, dare I say, legitimizing your approach. While much has been written on the loss of criticality in the discussion of art, even more has been written about how one should, or shouldn’t, express allegiance to or departure from a particular ideology. Donna Haraway approaches this from a Feminist perspective in her Situated Knowledges I mention this in this particular response to Henry Taylor’s work, because it is easy for us as white intellectuals to become lost in our own theoretical world of what is right and what is not, what is good art and what is not, without ever considering that not being black is an undeniable and essential aspect to one’s perspective on this work.

    This of course does not discount your individual, temporal point of view in the least, as your approach acknowledges not only the difference of all humans, but the difference between temporal articulations of our thought. I wonder if you have anything to say in hindsight about the relationship of what you didn’t understand about the show and how that might be of potential power in Taylor’s work? In essence, what I am asking for is your input on how you attempted to avoid such clichéd approaches to race in your discussion of the show? By clichéd responses, I mean the frustration with the supposed non-complexity and raw articulation of black thought:

    “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, effective and potent.”

    As well, there is the tendency for white males to acknowledge an articulation of black thought and continually to reshape it to address their own struggles and ideologies in statements such as, “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.”

    Both are regular practices that seem so admixed with our visual culture, as described by Herman Gray, Ernest Hardy, and more recently Spike Lee. Geoff, I hope I am not coming off as accusatory or, critical, rather I hope to spur a generative conversation. My aim is not to put down or disavow your approach. In fact, I think your focus on a temporal reaction to art work is essential and liberating, but to ignore the continuum of time and the connection situating our selves seems somewhat blasphemous to your cause. I hope to generate a positive conversation on how to start tackling these issues in our visual culture.

    Truly Yours, Your Biggest Fan, This is

    -Stan

  3. Dear Stan,

    Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I appreciate your careful consideration of my words.

    In order:

    I think I derive legitimacy from my actions. Each of us earn the respect and trust of others based on their individual experience of our doings here on earth. “To pay respect..” is a simple and an old phrase that we continue to use because respect is the currency of civilization.

    For the remaining questions you pose, I would ask that you consider this text in whole; I believe you will find responses to your questions in later paragraphs. I acknowledge to you, Shady Stan, that each time I write I achieve only a part of what I hope to communicate; and that even what i want to say falls far short of understanding. I am learning, Stan, I am still learning.

    I am yours Stan, with delight and gratitude,

    Geoff

  4. Hi again Stan. My writing illustrates my process of understanding. I begin Lookong, often I resist what I see. I don’t like changing, Stan, and art changes me. Slowly, by looking, by conversing and by writing, I gain a kind of understanding. A partial understanding, as I noted above. This is why I ask you to keep an reading until the end.

    Yes, I am white. This I consider at length in the closing paragraph and my discussion of “I started when I was young.”

    I resist the notion that my identity, ethnic and otherwise, is a boundary around my understanding. I have empathy. I have spirit. I am self-aware and I have a conscience.
    I have all the human tools available to help me understand, if I so desire. We all do. These things enable Henry Taylor to touch me with his art, and they allow me to be touched.

    It’s late now. My angel hollered at me an hour ago to stop.

    Good night Stan.

  5. Good morning Geoff. I can only reiterate that I am not attempting to disavow your tremendous bravery and, as I acknowledge it, beneficial manner in which you go about your practice. Writing alone is a brave act, one that I hope to never discourage anyone from doing. You have a thought provoking voice Geoff. I wrote the post above only so that I may instigate a conversation between us. We are always learning, and I hoped that we may be able to learn from a having a conversation that was, in part, spurred by your discussion of Taylor’s work.

    I did indeed read your entire piece. You did, in a rather brief paragraph, in fact acknowledge that you are white. But is it not pertinent to discuss what was seen by you, with the understanding of this perspective. Not that everything should be about race, but in this case the way you immediately retreat to the moment of slavery and to the past conceptions and historically accounts of what it means to be black in this country. This is an honest and fair treatment of the work, and one I found to be refreshing, especially in the last paragraph you referred to, where you acknowledge your lack of understanding of the two historical figures MLK and Malcolm X.

    I only wonder if we may now discuss this perception further. What does it mean that this is what you saw now? Are we destined to retreat to a historical conception of the black man in our culture? Is Taylor “giving the people what they want” so to speak? The people of being of course the predominantly affluent and white art consumers who inhabit Blum and Poe, as well as you and I who viewed the show. My previous questions, although perhaps a little too pointed, were presented as a means for us to begin discussing this idea. Perhaps this is something you have decided to leave up to your reader to deconstruct from your prose. However, I am one reader who would love to hear what you have to say about this, in a generative and hopefully thought provoking discussion between a reader and the author.

    Truly Yours, Your Biggest Fan, This is
    -Stan

  6. I enjoyed the review of Henry Taylor’s works and interpreted them (through photos) in a similar manner as Geoff, although “art” is not something I am too familiar with. Stan commented and it provoked the following. I do not speak for Henry, but knowing Henry from 1980 I wish to share a perspective.

    As a white man I am aware (because I choose to be) of the reluctance many black men feel, to engage with white men due to their considerable lack in understanding what it (still) means to be black in America. This is a reflex that I presume is gained from living the experience of having heard so many responses that are miles away from understanding what they experience. In fact, I once had a passionate argument with a cousin of Henry’s resulting in an unresolved “Man, you just don’t know!” Since that time over 20 years ago I have endeavored to “know.” I’ve personally observed that Henry, due to his all too loving heart, is reluctant to act in a confrontational manner with anyone but he does elude to his passion and identity, expressing his own voice and for those that possess his understanding, through his art. This “truth” would never be compromised in order to appeal, profit or dirty his self-expression. It is in fact, as with most artists, his “outlet.”

    Henry the individual, the painter and the black man sharing his experience, are one. Non-artists (myself included) sometimes focus on interpreting “a message” as one looks also to song lyrics for a literal meaning. From the moment I met Henry at age 22 he has always remained the genuine being who embraces all men but via the canvas, never losing where he comes from and providing those who will “listen,” views into the black experience. I’ve gathered that some who have lived that experience are exposed to an ongoing militant “discussion” venting the obvious frustrations experienced by those enduring racism on an emotional and sometimes physical level. The public does not want this to be, so it is kept in and among those that share the view of the struggle. Look closely to “hear” any works that share a conflict, not merely for an explanation, as it can only serve to fill you with compassion and insight. My understanding of Henrys’ work, if it could be summarized, is an honest expression of his love and curiosity of all people and sharing of his own peoples experience. To know Henry is to know a loving man who merely expresses those feelings and the observations he sees through art. That art can be fantasy, interpretation and random thoughts all presented without a purpose.

  7. Thank you, Jackson, for this comment. I’m
    Excited to read your personal experience with Henry Taylor – the artist and the person. This is valuable material for our conversation.

    On painting, I think I understand in your closing statement that Henry makes paintings without agenda, but as expressions of his experience. this is music to my ears. Thank you. What you say does not negate a political reading of henry’s paintings and sculptures, it simply insists that there is much else besides politics in them – there is life.

  8. Absolutely Geoff! And I enjoyed both Stan and your discourse. I live in a World where everything is agenda. I learned more from Henry than any other being that some have no agenda except that of expressing themselves. It’s a beautiful thang! My reply was left as I searched to reunite with Henry and I spoke of my recollection of our friendship in the 80’s. I Spoke with Henry today after some 20 years – he was delightful as ever.

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