When recently asked what draws him to painting, Henry Taylor told the New York Observer: “It’s like having a carton of milk in the fridge; it’s just gonna happen.” That compulsion and the L.A.-based artist’s infectious energy abounded in his eight-room retrospective, which included more than 70 paintings and sculptures, most made in the last decade.
Taylor’s subject matter is black life in all its intellectual, historical, political and everyday dimensions. A latecomer to the art world, Taylor (b. 1958) worked for 10 years as an aide in a psychiatric ward before he enrolled at CalArts. Upon graduation, instead of abiding by his highly conceptual training, he followed his own painterly compass. While his style’s intentional rawness and seemingly outsiderish predilections are a little jarring at first, the work is irrepressibly engaging.
An admitted manic portraitist, Taylor paints anyone in his path-friends, relatives, studio visitors and even strangers on the street-and on any material within reach. Usually created during only one sitting, his portraits vary greatly in approach and finesse, yet they reliably convey the liveliness of both the artist and his sitter. Displayed salon-style on one wall, a group of small and medium-size portraits on canvas, board or cereal boxes, mainly featuring closely cropped heads and shoulders, was a case in point.
But as the exhibition made clear, Taylor’s painterly deftness soars when he pits his subjects against an expansive urban or suburban setting, or when he depicts historical figures, often black activists and athletes, in action. The room containing large paintings of sports legends was exhilarating: an almost life-size Carl Lewis, in red running gear, kneels in victory at the foot of a white-fenced house; Jesse Owens, drawn in charcoal directly on the white canvas, charges forth on a richly painted track field.
Other works were less celebratory, dealing in some measure with the threat of violence. Warning Shots Not Required (2011), a dense acrylic, charcoal and collage painting, brandished its title-an advisory in overcrowded jails-in large bold letters across its 22-foot breadth. Effortlessly combining elements of signage, landscape and portraiture, the painting revolves around a brawny inmate who stands at its center, his soft stare burrowing into the viewer’s consciousness.
The exhibition also included sculptural works. As with the paintings, the most complex efforts produced the strongest outcomes. In It’s Like a Jungle (2011), a variety of found items-beer bottles, cinder blocks, a dog bone wrapped in fishnet, mop heads-were scattered amid a gathering of poles and broomsticks, each topped with a matte black plastic container, appearing like a roomful of raised fists. The unruly yet commanding installation rewarded in its entirety and its detail.
Those qualitites were particularly pronounced in Taylor’s solo show at Untitled. Inspired by a three-month trip to Ethiopia, Taylor turned the gallery into an immersive installation, filled with piles of dirt and sand on the floor, unfinished wall drawings, a taxidermied hyena, video and several large reliefs composed of plastic containers painted black. These surrounded a spacious open shack, made of found wood and other intriguing used items. It was a powerful manifestation of the artist’s nimble and unflinching approach to his subject matter.
Photo: View of Henry Taylor’s exhibition “March Forth,” 2012; at Untitled.