The colour black is, notionally, an absolute. As a racial classification, however, black consists of myriad shades of grey, though it continues to absolutely define many Americans’ lives. In Henry Taylor’s work it appears both as a colour and a condition. In each instance, the Los Angeles-based artist proves black to be a potent but inadequate term when talking about the realities of people’s daily existence.
Before reaching any of the large paintings for which Taylor is well known, visitors to his exhibition were confronted by a forest of wooden poles, sticks and planks. The untitled installation (all works 2011) gathered detritus cast from people’s homes out onto the street: broken furniture, cardboard packaging, a crutch, a mop, some animal bones. On the ends of the poles Taylor had impaled detergent and bleach bottles, painted black. These dark volumes loomed like masks, or heads on spikes; the entire scene had the ominous presence of voodoo totems, despite the incorporation of such unthreatening items as baseballs and a do-rag label. The installation seemed first and foremost an exercise in street anthropology – the linguistic implications of blackness only came later.
Those implications were pressed a little harder in an adjoining space, in which three untitled assemblages coalesced into a loose huddle that included two saw horses, a frying pan, polished but crumpled black leather boots and a black and white poster of the young Michael Jackson. A two-metre-high stack of black-painted beer boxes could not help but refer to Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1938), remade in human scale (in fact, an early oak version of the column, from 1918, is almost identical to Taylor’s). Brancusi’s quest to make matter weightless, and Jackson’s for an idealized and ageless beauty, both seem worlds away from the crusted and worn objects by which Taylor evokes the working class, black experience. It is likely, on reflection, that both were driven by comparable motivations.
At first, Taylor’s large paintings seem to be of a sunnier disposition than his sculptures. In Noah, a boy is rendered in bold tones and drippy marks that evoke a careless Matisse. See Alice Jump shows a female athlete vaulting through a cerulean sky. In fact the painting derives from a photograph of Alice Coachman, the first African-American Olympic gold medal winner; another painting of a sliding baseball player (A Jack Move – Proved It) is actually Jackie Robinson, civil rights activist and the first black player to be signed to a Major League Baseball team, in 1946. Even such images of black triumph and freedom are shot through with bitter memories of the tribulations that these public figures endured.
When he returns to the contemporary, Taylor shows that there is scant cause for celebration or complacency. Warning Shots Not Required occupied nearly a whole wall of the gallery. Its title – a sign from a prison yard – is stencilled in black across its centre, over the face of a muscled man who stares directly at the viewer. The painting’s muddy, confused surface is hard to read at once, and relates its mysterious incidents (a fish, a mask, a galloping foal, as well as abstract gestures) gradually, like graffiti on a wall.
This large painting is bombastic, and brutal; a related work, simply titled Resting, manages deftly to combine the humanistic intimacy of a portrait like Noah with the anger of Taylor’s most politically strident work. A couple sit, facing us, on a sofa; between them, seen through the window and implicating everything else in the picture (from the woman’s ‘California’ sweatshirt to the actual advertisements for ‘Canteen Correctional Services’ pasted by the artist onto their coffee table), is a prison wall painted with the phrase ‘WARNING SHOTS NOT REQUIRED’. This is not the inside of a prison, however; it’s not even the outside of a prison; it’s someone’s house. Taylor implies that, for some people in present day America, these can amount to the same thing.