Galerie Christian Nagel, Berlin, Germany
For people who are neither aficionados of cryptic crosswords nor lovers of riddles and rhymes, an attentive reading of the list of works accompanying Stephanie Taylor’s first solo exhibition was a must. This plain document headed Descriptions is something
of a work of art in itself, a sort of Baedeker’s guide designed to help you navigate while leaving you lost in a sea of possible meanings. Viewing the exhibition unaided, you might have thought it to be a pleasant show about sailors, featuring mainly works on paper by a group of young artists called ‘Stephanie Taylor’ - which in one way could be true. That much wasn’t so hard to piece together, given a bit of prompting from the ‘exhibition soundtrack’ Adria (all works 2002) - a beautiful flute-accompanied nautical tune - and Bass, an eye-catching golden fish sculpture. The latter lay on the floor like a trinket that had fallen from the charm bracelet of a rather large collector. But who issued the creative licence to justify the inclusion of a crude cardboard silhouette of a leopard, Pard Lord, or a series of fetching organic colour photograms helpfully entitled ‘And ham, and ham, and ham, and ham’?
Taylor is interested in sound and aware of the way gallery visitors progress in an orderly fashion from one work to another. So she offered as a starting-point for her exhibition an intriguing mixed-media ensemble. It consisted of what looked like a piece of tiled surfboard covered with reptile motifs (Childhood), a pile of hand painted tiles (Smaze of Greys) and two charcoal drawings of a father and son (captioned Caulk-low tile, porous slake and Knock no pile, nor truss break). If you’re like me, then the caption won’t help you very much, although the solution is partly embedded in the relation of the words to the media and the things depicted. Taylor has an original and refreshing approach to the relationship between language (in particular the sound of words) and art objects. While many visual artists work from the assumption that the things they make can never adequately be described or explained in words, they are happy when someone tries to do just that. Taylor is aware of the problem but puts it the other way round. In her exhibition word plays suggest objects and appropriate media, but in a tangential, lateral way that keeps ‘meaning’ at bay, or at least tantalizingly beyond the horizon.
Just below the surface of her exhibition lurks the narrative of her male alter ego, the seaman Anisar Condor. ‘Taylor’ rhymes with sailor, and her notes inform us that the name is produced through ‘a process of sound extraction’ from ‘Stephanie Taylor’ rendered as ‘Stay funny, Sailor’. This is exactly what she does; her works are full of a dry humour that comes from stating or making the ridiculous with a very straight face. The ensemble including Childhood depicts Condor as a young man in his father’s wood shop with what might be read as signs of potential threats: smog and haze (Smaze of Greys), crocodile (knock no pile) and snake (slake - which ‘prevents water from leaking between tiles’). Further along, in one of Taylor’s best images, Bah Sister, a drunk sailor with poor judgement laughs off (or ‘bahs’) an approaching tornado (twister). One possible response to the exhibition is to read it as an absurd poem about the life of an artist setting out on a journey of discovery to the land of art - a place inhabited by gnarled old men and attractive creatures. Taylor’s drawings (one with food ‘thawing’) and sketches (one depicting ‘fetching’) were all commissioned from illustrators, who were given detailed descriptions of contents, down to the facial expressions. These works have already been through a process of translation of their dyslexic-like internal logic. Once you take the time to be initiated, the combined result is idiosyncratic but appealing and, like Taylor’s ham-inspired photograms, good ‘food for hungry sailors’.