February 26, 2012
Some Kind of Solitude: Tommy Taylor at Whitespace Gallery through March 31
A Mash-up of Myth, Memory and Old Masters
By Nancy Staab
- Photos by Colby Blount
A NYC-based artist returns to his native South and then, temporarily, trades in his abstract style for something more figurative, layered and allusive. LuxeCrush visits the studio of Tommy Taylor to get a handle on this versatile artist and his new visual trajectory.
What do you get when you are a seasoned NYC and Atlanta-based artist and spend a month in a one-stoplight town in North Carolina dog-sitting? Your thoughts roam; you might sift through old family memories and histories; you do some desultory reading from your friend’s bookcases—stuff like Edith Hamilton’s tomes on Greek mythology or maybe Joseph Campbell that get you thinking about myths and what it means to be a man. Then you turn to computer surfing and check into Facebook, find more visuals--from vintage photos to WWII imagery, and a phantasmagoric swirl of pictures soon appear in your mind and then arranged via Photoshop on your computer screen. And then you start to actually paint. This is exactly what happened, well the shorthand version, of how Tommy Taylor came to produce his latest series of genre-twisting paintings for his current solo show "Some Kind of Solitude" at Whitespace Gallery. Not to fear, Taylor hasn’t exactly abandoned his abstract tendencies: there’s still the heady swirl of colors, shapes and patterns to these pieces but they nevertheless go in a decidedly different vein.
It’s a pretty brave act for an artist to leave his established and very successful practice, in this case gorgeous abstract art, and attempt something verging much closer to figurative, if not narrative art. In fact, not a lot of artists can successfully manipulate both modes. But that’s exactly what Taylor did for his bravura new show of approximately 10 large-scale works. “I took it as a self-challenge: Am I going to be able to pull this off?” Taylor asked himself.
Pull it off he did. And judging from his dense and allusive, and expansive canvases (some are as large as 6 x 8 feet), this exercise has been freeing in many ways. It’s as if Taylor had been hoarding and storing up memories, images and themes in his subconscious for years until they just had to manifest on canvas. Like many artists, he’s delved deep into his childhood and, being Southern, personal family history, for inspiration for his latest works-- not to mention pop culture, American history, art history, mythology and notions of manhood. The result is a rich brew of memory, mythology and old masters.
Taylor’s studio is located rather romantically behind Sardis Methodist Church near Chastain Park. Taylor wryly observes, “I’m working on the same level as the graveyard out back.” His window-lit space also looks out to a wooded landscape that might fool you into thinking you are in the countryside. It’s a typically spartan artist’s lair with mottled paint spatters on the floor, canvases in various unfinished states, and mellow, alternative Norwegian bands playing in the backdrop. (Taylor likes mellow repetitive music to complete his canvases, like obscure European bands or trance music, and he’s a huge Pink Floyd fan. But to start and prime his canvases he blasts more aggressive music like ACDC or Metallica.). The scruffily handsome and 40-something Taylor admits that he may have indulged in romantic notions of the artist as hedonist drinker, smoker, escapist, waiting for the artistic muse to scatter fairy dust of inspiration in the past. But these days he’s more likely to work industriously, plying a basic 7AM to 7PM schedule during the week. He typically completes about a painting a month, and during our recent visit to his studio, he was a little bit shy of two weeks until his big Whitespace opening. Nervous and excited about his big reveal, the paint splattered, overall- clad artist gave us a sneak peak of his new solo show.
Perhaps the centerpiece of his new exhibit is the largest canvas, tentatively titled “Ledo Road.” The collage-like canvas hints at narrative, but in fact it’s more densely layered, non-logical and non-linear like a dream…or maybe a myth. “Myth is a way for people to wrap their head around the unexplainable and that really resonated with me,” says Taylor, whose current canvases strains to make sense of the, perhaps, un-sensible. “This is probably my most nostalgic piece in the show,” says Taylor of his expansive, blue, Ledo Road piece, “although the presence of German propaganda imagery undercuts the sentimentality.” A hulking WWII plane, which delivered supplies from Europe to China, takes up much of the right side of the canvas. There’s a threatening Asian dragon, a schoolboy carrying a menacing gun, a patch of damask wallpaper pattern, a period 50’s woman holding a cocktail and what looks like a celebratory noise-maker in her mouth, a map of the Bay of Bengal and cartoon figures from Brer’ Rabbit.
Taylor is reluctant to explicate the various strands of meaning in this piece, preferring his works to be suggestive and open to interpretation. (“I like the push- pull of meaning and ambiguity. The viewer should relate to a piece in his own way, which is why I gravitate to abstract art,” says Taylor.) But Taylor did reveal that much of the canvas derives from boyhood memories of a great aunt from Sumter, South Carolina, who regaled him as a boy with Brer’ Rabbit stories and an uncle who was enlisted in World War II and flew one of those planes, delivering supplies to Europe, Africa and Asia. This same uncle would do fly-bys over the great aunt’s house during the war and drop rationed chocolate in a kerchief for her. The enemy Japanese had bombed out and closed the roads through the Himalayas, so American troops were forced to fly aid to China instead.
“After the war,” says Taylor, “ my uncle resumed his simple life and opened a dry cleaner’s store in his hometown. He never really talked about his war experiences, but one time he recalled hearing a roar of laughter in the back of the plane as he was flying.” To his horror, Allied troops were pushing captive Japanese soldiers out of the plane. Likewise, there is no easy good guy/bad buy dichotomies to the personal or national histories embedded in Taylor’s pieces.
Another canvas, “Heroes for Ghosts,” also plays with nostalgia—this time borrowed from a friend’s vintage Christmas photo plastered on a Facebook page. The friend was a contemporary of Taylor’s and so the photo jibed with many of his own memories of growing up in the late 60s and early 70s. “This wasn’t my own family photo but I recognized many of the signifiers in the scene--the yarn art on the wall, the 3-window-paned door, etc.” The photo depicts a toddler girl, probaby on her daddy's knee and a dressed-up Santa wearing his class ring and holding a White Russian. And because it’s a Christmas scene, Taylor says he also felt that he needed to include a Jesus Christ figure in the mix, and since he “grew up in the church of rock’n’roll,” Taylor wryly rendered Christ as the lead guitarist David Gilmore of Pink Floyd (he also bears some resemblance to Brad Pitt!). Elliptical patterns and swirling lines are overlaid over the scene. Disquieting WWII soldeir imagery in the bottom right corner of the painting, as well as Taylor’s humor (Pink Floyd and White Russians for this Holy Night), subtly subvert the domestic or religious idealism of this montage.
Mythology also came into play in Taylor’s newest works, according to the artist, and “what it means to be a man”—whether the hero is the cartoon figure Popeye or a movie cowboy or a WWII pilot. “Joseph Campbell says the hero is always someone who leaves home, has experiences, faces tasks and trials, and then returns home,” muses Taylor.
Speaking of leaving home, Taylor, who grew up in Greenville, S.C., spent about 8 years as an artist in New York City. However, he returned home to the South a few years ago, by accident, and ended up staying permanently--eventually settling in Atlanta. He says it took him weeks to feel at home back in the South, whereas it took years in New York City. He’s settled happily into a house in Inman Park with two bedrooms and an actual lawn to mow.
There were also Odysseus-like wanderings along the way. As a sub-contracted artist for Anthropologie (via NYC-based Atlanta artist Michael Allen), Taylor created lofty scenery for their stores across the country—spending lengthy stints in various cities across the country, including Monterey, California; Austin, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Los Angeles, California—where he learned to surf. Perhaps this is where that damask wallpaper patch from "Ledo Road" comes in. The multi-talented Taylor, who is trained in murals and plaster work, often treated wallpaper to tea-staining, patching, artful tearing and other forms of decorative distressing for Anthropolgie stores.
Taylor is also trained in classical beaux arts and figurative painting with a fine arts degree from the University of Georgia. This background has allowed him to branch out from his abstract oeuvre. While his abstract works were done primarily in acrylics, the current works are begun in acrylic and then finished with more viscous oil paints. “Its been fun to break out the oil paints again after ten years,” says Taylor. “The colors are richer than acrylics and you get a nice depth and soft focus.” Even in abstract work, Taylor draws on his classical training. “You need to control your paint, not have it control you. Certainly there are some happy accidents, but first you need to have a good knowledge of color and good drafting skills. Line and composition are very important. But then you have to go beyond that and give the piece a loose, whipped-off feel.” These same forces are at work in Taylor’s current show, which blends figurative elements in an almost hallucinogenic swirl of rich color, shape and pattern that also renders them abstract to some degree. Indeed, canvases are even overlaid with swirling abstract lines and elliptical and diamond-shaped patterns.
Taylor cites old masters like Caravaggio, whom he labels “a bad ass,” as general inspirations for his works, as well as turn-of-the-century painters like Whistler and Sargent—“their handling of paint was so incredible. They could render a hand holding a wrinkled velvet glove in four brushstrokes and you could tell that the glove was velvet,” he marvels. Taylor also cites more modern artists like Willem de Kooning, a painter’s painter if there ever was one. “I love his line, his color, and his use of pinks, blues and candy greens. He made that palette acceptable. He had a very feminine palette, which is ironic since his paintings of women, themselves, were often grotesque.” One could say that elements of the de Kooning palette make their way into Taylor’s abstract and figurative works. As for contemporary artists, he admires American figurative painter Karim Hamid, dream-like NYC-based artist Inka Essenhigh, late Barcelona abstract painter Antonio Tápies and the late, great, messily raw, artist Francis Bacon, who combined figurative and abstract art.
Though Taylor has clearly relished his return to figurative art, he has not gotten abstract painting out of his system and expects to return to that mode of painting for his next collection of works. It remains to be seen if elements of his figurative work will somehow filter into his more formal abstracts, but he resolutely states, “I am not done with abstract yet.”
“Some Sort of Solitude: New Paintings by Tommy Taylor,” Feb. 24-March 31, opening reception Feb. 24, 7-10 PM, Whitespace Gallery, 814 Edgewood Ave. N.E., www.whitespace814.com Join Tommy Taylor Wed. March 28 at 6:30PM for an artist's talk about his new work at Whitespace.
SEE MORE IMAGES OF TOMMY TAYLOR'S CURRENT WORKS AND HIS STUDIO IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW.