Intimate in theme yet expansive in scale and chromatic vitality, G Related is a singularly important piece from Henry Taylor’s acclaimed corpus of exuberantly vibrant humanist portraits. Independent from any series or specified group of works from the artist’s oeuvre, the present work comprises the highest number of portraits that the artist ever painted within a single pictorial plane and features a complete line-up of the artist’s personal circle of family, friends and important acquaintances from his past, present and even future. The title G Related, inspired by the West Coast slang phrase “OG”, an abbreviation for “original gangsters”, serves as a playful yet poignant salute to the individuals that occupy important and significant roles within the artist’s life. Combined with the textural references “Illies” and “LA” which pay tribute to the American cigar brand Phillies Blunt and the Los Angeles-based baseball team LA Dodgers respectively, both quintessential favourites of the artist, the present work manifests as a unique self-portrait. G Related was created in 2004, coinciding with the year of Taylor’s first solo exhibition as well as the creation of I’ll Put A Spell on You, the current record-holding work by the artist. Both works were shown at the exhibition Los Angeles – A Fiction at the Astrup Feamley Museum of Modern Art in 2016-2017.
Taylor’s oeuvre is recently undergoing surging critical interest. Having been the subject of a solo exhibition at the MoMA PS1 in 2012, it was his celebrated participation in the most recent edition of the Whitney Biennial in 2017 that elevated Taylor’s career to new heights; and in 2018 he was awarded the Robert De Niro, Sr. Prize by the Tribeca Film Institute that honours a mid-career painter. The principal hallmark of Taylor’s aesthetic is an ability to bridge the personal and the universal; in the words of MoMA curator Laura Hoptman: “For Taylor […] portraiture is much more than an artistic convention of a realistic painter; the variety that he produces within the genre reshapes what might be considered a conventional language into a flexible vehicle for a much larger goal, which is to produce a multivalent but also highly specific vie of contemporary life as seen through the eyes of an African American artist at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (Laura Hoptman cited in the exhibition catalog for Taylor’s 2012 MoMA PS1 solo exhibition). Often large-scale and vibrant, Taylor’s paintings portray a variety of intersecting narratives involving the Black communities of California. Depicting friends, family, acquaintances as well as homeless people, psychiatric patients, and art world colleagues, critics and viewers, Taylor’s gaze is warmly democratic and levelling; representing all by means of his rich, bright palette.
Prior to his artistic career, Taylor spent ten years working as a psychiatric nurse at a California state hospital while attending the California Institute of the Arts during off-shift hours. Many of Taylor’s patients became his first sitters and facilitated the artist’s acute sensibility towards observing and capturing human personalities in the mundane settings of everyday life. “He’s in love with the paintings. He’s in love with the people in them,” says Taylor’s gallerist Tim Blum (Arty Nelson, “Portrait Mode: Artist Henry Taylor Finally Gets His Due”, GQ online, 10 September 2018). The artist’s acute interest in the human condition cannot be more evident from the fact that a large number of his portraits document the addicted, the homeless and the victimised – individuals that the artist sought out from the streets to sit for him in his studio. The artist declares: “It’s about respect, because I respect these people. It’s a two-dimensional surface, but they are really three dimensional beings” (the artist cited in Antwaun Sargent, ‘Examining Henry Taylor’s Groundbreaking Paintings of the Black Experience’, Artsy, 16 July 2018).
Executed with a shrewd critical eye combined with a delicate sensibility that ultimately culminates in a redemptive and moving harmony, Taylor’s art draws reference from a wide range of influences but is above all underscored by his highly empathetic sensitivity for his subjects, his loved ones and humanity as a whole. The artist comments that his “influences vary… of course you reflect, and you get nostalgic, and you go back to your past, to your Dad and Mom” (the artist cited in a video made for W Magazine and The New York Times). Elsewhere the artist reflects: “This is part of my passion for painting. You can’t separate from your subjects because you internalise too much” (the artist cited in an interview with Charles Gaines, “Henry Taylor”, New York, 2018, p. 76). Engaging in subtle political commentary surrounding themes of racism, oppression and social injustice, Taylor employs brisk graffiti-like brushwork and an exuberantly light-hearted palette to abolish the distinction between the privileged and the marginalized, empowering the latter with the pure essence of their “unstudied openness” (Zadie Smith, ‘Promiscuous Painting: Henry Taylor All Over the Damn Place’, in Ibid., p.9) and with voices of their own. Embodying all these strategies, and furthermore functioning as a self-portrait of sorts, G Related stands as a superior paradigm of Taylor’s distinctive way of seeing and documenting his life and the world.
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