The paintings of Los Angeles-based artist Henry Taylor invite the outside world into his very personal sphere. Using everyone and everything around him as a source of inspiration for his art, Taylor’s portraits present a diverse cast of characters ranging from sports heroes to people from his downtown LA neighbourhood, addressing community in its most expansive sense. Similarly to the rest of the artists represented in this show, Taylor paints what he sees and relates to: the world around him. He does so with the most lighthearted naivety and a subtle sense for social justice, making no distinctions between iconic historical figures and the people on the sidewalk. His subjects include friends, relatives, acquaintances from the art world, as well as heroes from the worlds of sports and politics. A 2012 residency at MoMA PS1 in New York encouraged “a frenzy of portraits of staff and patrons of the museum”, a memory they cherish until today (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, MoMA PS1, Henry Taylor, 2014, p. 6).
The youngest of eight siblings, Taylor began painting seriously while working as a psychiatric nurse at Camarillo State Hospital and studying art at the California Institute of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1995. It is perhaps this unique blend of academic training and outsider’s sensibility that results in what we can experience as authentic, multilayered insights into the human condition. There is also an intimacy about his paintings, which can be appreciated throughout all of his oeuvre; from the more informal bust-length portraits of people slouching on sofas and chairs to more allegorical works in which the subject is caught mid-action or placed in an imaginary landscape.
The protagonists of Walking with Vito are two young people walking their intimidating yet loyal mastiff. Dressed in sports clothes, with the shirt casually hung over the shoulder and a drink in the hand, they are slandering along the road after what could be a basketball game with friends in the hood. African American subjects and politics populate many of Taylor’s large paintings. These require careful observation and sensitivity in order for the underlying meanings to unfold layer by layer. As he stated in an interview with Jennifer Higgie for Frieze Magazine: “I paint a figure, but often there’s more to it” (Jennifer Higgie, ‘8 Painters on Painting’, Frieze Magazine, No. 160, Jan-Feb 2014, p. 97).
It is therefore not a coincidence that we can recognise a political poster towards the upper left quadrant of the composition, vaguely recalling the Obama HOPE campaign from 2008. “This is America and if you are black in America it’s easy for politics to permeate your work […] so my life is political and full of love” (Exhibition Catalogue, Santa Monica, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Henry Taylor: Girrrrl!, 2008, online resource). Here our two young men and their dog Vito are placed against the background of a car park, where the words NO PARKING appear in giant golden letters, exemplifying Taylor’s affinity with language and logos, as well as his subtle sense of humour. Using energetic expressive strokes and a rich colour palette, Taylor’s subjects stand out starkly against the background like a joyous explosion of paint. The artist’s treatment of the figures and background, however, is flat and almost crudely unfinished, thus creating a duality and tension in his paintings that has become his signature style. The loosely painted surfaces and fragmentary surroundings give the works a real sense of immediacy, like snapshots of everyday life, whilst his ability to capture nuances of expression and mood in his subjects conveys emotion and psychological depth. Taylor’s talent consists in creating a challenging dynamic between realism and abstraction, raw simplicity and empathetic detail, thus producing a very personal view of contemporary life as seen through the eyes of an African American artist at the beginning of the twenty-first century.