Henry Taylor, a stalwart of the Los Angeles art scene, is known for painting sympathetic portraits of local characters, family, friends, and celebrities in a loose, gestural manner, with thick strokes of acrylic quickly marking out details. The figures tend to stare out from the pictures, producing a tension in which viewers are made aware of their voyeuristic gaze. Taylor has also ventured into installation: his 2013 exhibition at Blum & Poe, for instance, included, among other items, a formal dining table set atop a grooved plot of soil that evoked a plowed field, the combination underscoring themes seen in the surrounding paintings, which were inspired by WPA-era photographs of black farm workers. In his recent exhibition at the gallery, Taylor demonstrated an expanded installation approach, creating a series of distinct immersive environments for his paintings.
The first space, which featured an earthen floor (the dirt dry and gravelly, unlike the tilled soil in the 2013 show), a barren tree, a graffitied cinder-block wall, and a makeshift campsite, suggested a postapocalyptic landscape or, more simply, the urban wastelands of Los Angeles. On the walls hung Taylor’s portraits and vignettes of everyday life. In one, a man (Haitian, according to the painting’s title) washes windows for money; in another, a gray-haired woman works on a seated man’s braids. The figures exude a calm and grace at odds with the dereliction of the installation.
White metal gates flanked the entrance to the next space, which, bearing an Astroturf floor with a sculpture of a swimming pool at the center, was rendered as a residential backyard. The acid-toned paintings shown here depict figures engaged in leisurely activities like swimming and lounging in deck chairs. An adjacent room (also part of the show) screened a black-and-white video installation, Wizard of the Upper Amazon (2016), by Kahlil Joseph, a music video director and friend of the artist. Apparently inspired by an encounter Taylor had with Bob Marley at a concert in Santa Barbara, Joseph’s video piece shows several men sitting in a darkened space smoking marijuana. It seemed out of place here, its connection with the rest of the works unclear.
The final room offered yet another striking scene change, this one transporting viewers to an artist’s studio. Littered with stepladders, crates, buckets, and paint tubes, the space featured numerous paintings hung salon-style or propped casually against the walls. The piling up of these intimate portraits made it difficult to appreciate each work individually, though there was a vitality to the crowded presentation, which brought together subjects of various races and ranged from close-up portrayals to more distant views, from small canvases to monumental ones.
The undoubted highlight of the exhibition was Too Sweet (2016): a masterful painting of a vagrant begging on the street—a familiar sight in Los Angeles—that was shown in the first gallery space. In this painting, telephone wires cut diagonally across a flat plane of blue sky, and the remaining elements—a car window, the man’s cardboard sign and spiky hair—are set at odd and dramatic angles to one another. Taylor elevates the beggar, turning the figure into a subject worthy of classical portraiture. The painting, which burns with intensity and, at eleven feet tall, dwarfed the works around it, provided a haunting moment in the show. As I made my way through the subsequent galleries, the image’s lingering power helped reinforce the sense that Taylor’s installation approach was an unnecessary conceit. While the strategy might have provided evocative scenery, it also distracted from a powerful body of work that needs no additional support.
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.