in Features | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Snakes and Daggers

Philip Taaffe

in Features | 06 JUN 98

When first shown in 1985, Philip Taaffe's We Are Not Afraid was viewed as a strategically austere riposte to Barnett Newman. His Yellow Painting (1984) and Brest (1985), along with a whole body of other works, were seen as ironic appropriations of Bridget Riley; and the totemic forms and structure of works like Phantastisches Gebet I (1987) were read as a commentary on original versus reproduced imagery. Dan Cameron, in 1987, spoke comfortably of Taaffe alongside Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Sarah Charlesworth and Barbara Kruger. A decade later, the same works look very different. Taaffe's categorisation as an appropriation artist did not always, within its overarching polemic, take full account of other characteristics of his work which were at least as interesting and have since led him further: the practical matters of technical construction and scale, the complex interaction between form, field, and flow within individual pieces and across the oeuvre as a whole.

Taaffe borrows imagery from wherever he can find it, often via photographic reproductions. He has, to date, made use of forms derived from sources as varied as Modern art (including Newman, Riley, Clyfford Still and Ellsworth Kelly), Spanish baroque ironwork, tribal art, Islamic and Moorish architecture and Arabesque ornamentation, Byzantine mosaics and, more recently, 19th-century botanical illustrations. His imagery is not primarily intellectual, chosen to make a point; it is sensual, in that he wants to make a physical work of art. In fact he looks both wider and deeper than any abbreviated summary of influences can even suggest. A list he wrote in 1991 included 'Shield / Badge (Scudetto) or Breast Plate, Vest Armor (Symmetrical) / Partially excavated Wholes / Hourglass, Cocks, Narrowly Elongated, Semi-Symmetrical / Jar / Object-like Elaborations...'. 1 Taaffe is obsessed by the power of form to speak, not of its origin or its history, not as representation or result, but for and of itself. His motifs are his motives, however impure and complex.

In rendering the forms that have captivated him, Taaffe remakes them. His procedure takes him far from the realm of mere quotation, either in the footnote-grabbing style of current academic art, or the grandiloquent gesturing of the soi-disant modern masters. It is closer to the interpretation of a musical score, starting with a given statement and articulating it through arrangement, pacing, and the use of what even in music are referred to as colour and texture. But Taaffe takes liberties not normally available to musicians, extending or contracting the duration or scale of his source material at will. In Mural of the Sixteen-Pointed Star (1992), for example, he takes a single emblematic image and prints it in different colours onto individual pieces of paper, all finally shown together in a horizontal format ten metres long. In this, Taaffe's procedure is perhaps closer to the production of music in a sound studio: the final result can happily combine 'live' and sampled sounds, foreground can become background and vice versa, a single short passage can be made to generate its own continuation or development.

Size and format vary widely, as if the works were conceived with a specific architectural space in mind. Sometimes they are, as in the three large paintings made especially for a solo show at the Wiener Secession late in 1996. More often, the works' physical bounds function as an explicit formal element with a purpose intrinsic to each individual piece. When a standard pictorial format is employed, it seems done with deliberation, consciously to frame a 'picture'; when the format deviates in any dimension it is to define the space within which particular forms can unfold.

Taaffe's medium also varies from work to work, but in each case it is a cumulative process that involves an element of printing, collage and painting. He begins by making monotype prints on paper; these he cuts out and sticks onto a prepared canvas surface, which he goes on to paint over. Such a laborious hands-on procedure determines the conditions in which the work is perceived. It is always a clearly physical construct, displaying the mechanism of its making (although in reproduction, the close surface detail is less evident). The results of such a process are fragile, tenuous fictions. They never seek to persuade that they are final or inevitable products, but instead, continually reassert their provisionality.

The technique allows the artist great freedom, but also predisposes him towards certain restrictions - for example, a single form rarely appears only once in a work, but is more likely to be repeated, often in different orientations or with minor modifications. So it is in the relatively early Ulysses (1989), where a host of dagger phallus shapes jostle for space beside a totemic fishbone; or in Stewardess (1990/91), in which symbolic winged forms (the original derived from the logo on a packet of Bulgarian cigarettes) combine into something that falls between a totem and a pattern. Taaffe remains, mysteriously, both in thrall to his material and totally at liberty with it: he has no compunction in drawing on the highest and lowest of available sources, in juxtaposing them freely, manipulating their scale and indeed their outward form, all the while sustaining their authority as ready-mades. His images are conceptually, if not actually, beyond morphology. Strictly speaking, his paintings do not concern themselves with abstraction, since their constituent elements are pre-abstracted realities absorbed, as figures, into new compositions. You cannot trace their ancestry to organic nature (as with Mondrian), a proposal (Reinhardt), a programme (Klein) or a process (Hesse). Taken from already existing sources, their specific histories and antecedents are secondary to the compelling narrative of formal invention that takes place in front of the viewer's eyes.

Taaffe's is an art of unnatural selection, appropriate to the age of genetic manipulation. You want stripes, we do stripes: on snakes, on paintings, whatever. Here's a flower to match your blueprint, a blueprint to match your flower (two works from 1994-5, though substantially the same, are given two different, contradictory, titles - Botanical Figure and Abstract Figure). Some of his most recent works appear to use imagery of animals and insects, flowers and leaves unmediated by the hand of the ornamental craftsman. As representations of nature they are charming, like exotic trophies arranged in cases or pressed between the pages of a book. As diagrams of force - whether aesthetic or organic, chemical or cosmic - they are inspired.

While depicting forces compressed into individual forms, these works also create carefully defined fields of action. This all-over approach has been another trademark of Taaffe's from the start, most clearly in the Riley-inspired paintings but also in a work like Easter Choir of 1990, where successive ornamental columns imply a cellular, potentially infinite form of composition. Celtic Field (1993) multiplies an archaic floral emblem to create an energetic, spinning surface, while the recent Loculus (1997), for all its sweetness, plays a nervy game between figurative and pattern painting.

Taaffe's work is well-known for the devices it uses to draw the viewer into its world, from the vertiginous play of optical illusion to the seductive patina of heavily-worked surfaces. Perhaps his greatest achievement, and one that is most relevant to contemporary concerns, is to resist the closure both of the decorative and of the painted image. His work cannot be consigned either to the contingent continuum of ornament, which depends on its surroundings for its sense, or to the supposedly self-contained continuum of painting. This is perhaps most apparent in works that rely neither solely on strong object formation nor on all-overness, but which literally seem to capture moments of flow between one state and another. Inner City (1993) is one such work, in which the controlled patterns of Bridget Riley's optical effects are shattered into seemingly homeless, aimless fragments, like isolated sound waves weaving through an echoing landscape. King Snake (Horizontal Stripes) (1996-97) achieves a similar effect by the repeated overlaying of the image of a snake; though in fact unchanging, their forms are continually deprived of definition by their placing: they seem to be always falling into and out of patterns, to be forever hemmed into and bursting out of symmetries.

Taaffe's work recognises that in culture, as in nature, we live in a world of species which possess both general characteristics and local variations. Accepting biological and historical pre-conditioning for what those characteristics are, he charts form's endless capacity for change - generated both internally and in response to outside stimuli. In doing so, he produces work that engages with culture without either calcifying or desecrating it.

1. Philip Taaffe, 'Presentation on the Embankment', in Philip Taaffe, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1992