Near the entrance of Untitled Gallery on the Lower East Side is a slab of concrete with a shovel stuck into it. Chair legs and wire sprout off the shovel, as do branches wrapped in stretched pantyhose like wings on an urban angel. The shovel’s handle fits into the mouth of a plastic bottle shaped like a fuel container, painted black to resemble an African mask. On the adjacent wall hangs an antique wooden mirror frame, which now holds a hand-drawn Confederate flag found by the artist. Two toy shotguns are tied to the top, replicating the crossbar gesture in the Confederacy’s battle flag. Although the frame no longer holds a mirror, there still remains the impulse for reflection on the juxtaposition of these materials, which have been abandoned or perhaps discarded as litter in the hot streets of Los Angeles where the artist Henry Taylor resides.
Henry Taylor, Solo show, Installation view at Untitled New York
The first time I was introduced to Taylor, I was unfamiliar with both his work and the city of Los Angeles; I hadn't anticipated how perfectly the artist and the city could mutually introduce one another. Inside of the MOCA in downtown L.A., the painting Warning Shots Not Required (2011) stretched 23 feet across a wall. However compelling, its physical size was the least impressive part. An intimate moment of eye contact is trapped between a black, muscular man walking across a prison yard and the viewer. The painting's title is stenciled across the canvas in capital letters. A galloping foal, a gathering of women, a fish, and a silhouette of a man’s head also join the tableau. Once the surreal set of images and text coalesce into a single story, it envelops everything in the same way as water does; it mutes the sense of anything else existing beyond its presence.
Taylor’s artwork isn’t necessarily easy to read—maybe because it requires the reader to be humanistic and instinctive. It’s an honest eye-on-eye perspective of the community, the streets that Taylor has seen, presented in a space one wouldn’t necessarily expect to draw empathy. At Blum & Poe in the Upper East Side—the other venue in Taylor’s two-part New York solo—there is an untitled painting of a handbag street seller, who appears disconnected from society, looking in all directions at once, as if in a state of paranoia; other figures peer around a corner at him and a woman in a summer dress seems to inquire about a purse he is holding. There also exists a tension between racial stereotypes and the illegal practice of street hawking. In Where Thoughts Provoke, a black and slightly amorphous profile is slumped in a bathtub, the figure’s head turned down. The title suggests that a space of solitude and self-reflection welcomes an overwhelming sad presence.
Henry Taylor, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 18 1/8 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe
Some consider Taylor an outsider artist because of his painting’s formal resemblance to folk style with its vibrant and loose brush strokes, and his fickle relationship with orthodox learning. However, when asked about it by a writer for the Observer, he responded “I say to hell with all that shit.” He received his art degree at CalArts in his 30s while working as an aide to the mentally ill at a hospital, only to reject his training in conceptual art and return to a prolific approach to making art. Because the artist moves quickly, things that inspire him must come within a swift reach. In one painting at Untitled a black child stands in flip-flops and orange shorts, holding a toy shotgun. On a larger canvas, a crowd congregates outdoors around a cross in what might be a block party or casual religious ceremony. In the middle of the room rests a sculpture of a tire made with the cardboard toilet paper roll tubes, a material that serves no further purpose after the toilet paper is gone. Taylor himself appears up close and in a corner, “selfie-style,” in another painting with two other men, a horse, and a hand stretched out in a shaking position. Whether it’s the scribble markings of shirt patterns, the absence of eyes or facial features on figures, or simply the loose handle of color on the paintbrush, all of the paintings share the feeling of an artwork left unfinished.
In The Darker the Berry, The Sweeter the Juice (named after Harlem Renaissance author Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel) at the Blum & Poe location, a woman is represented as a silhouette of her skin color—she has no facial features or expression. Taylor visually extracts Thurman’s story of a young woman accepting her darker skin color into portrait form. He simultaneously challenges the viewer to share the journey with her by raising the question of who exactly is seeing the woman only by her skin color.
The intuitive relationship between the observer and Taylor’s art is similar to the artist and his barehanded process of creation; they’re visceral in the belly and emotionally elevated. His portraits are of friends, family or characters meets on the streets; he paints on canvas or cigarette packs and cereal boxes; his sculptures are made with colloquial materials that exist somewhere mindfully in his immediate or surrounding environment, and places he’s traveled to. To look at the art of Henry Taylor is to walk the streets with Henry Taylor.
(Image at top: Henry Taylor, Solo show, Installation view at Untitled New York)