At once intimate in theme and monumental in scale, C&H
is an exuberant and sensuous snapshot of Henry Taylor’s distinctive way of seeing. Painted in 2006, the present work demonstrates the principal hallmarks of Taylor’s aesthetic: large-scale and vibrant, this canvas portrays a variety of intersecting narratives involving the Black communities of California. Depicting friends, family, acquaintances, 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. In C&H
, the viewer is met by a large group of immaculately-dressed people, of which the majority are women in smart, black dresses, who have gathered on a luscious green lawn before a building. Some are children held or supervised by loving adults while others are captured in a moment of tender embrace. The ‘C&H’ logo of the California and Hawaiian Sugar Company – which had operated out of Crockett, California for exactly one hundred years when this painting was made – looms large behind the heads of the group and foreshadows Kara Walker’s 2014 A Subtlety,
which explored the
US sugar industry’s exploitation of African Americans. In an uncanny and humorous twist, a giant figure – presumably Taylor himself clad in dungarees and white shirt – watches over the scene from behind a house. Smiling and benevolent, Taylor represents himself, not without irony and frivolity, as a kind of guardian over the occasion. Displaying a redemptive and moving harmony, C&H
represents a community united by their shared history and an artist intent on documenting it. Taylor enjoyed a major, mid-career retrospective at MoMA PS1 in 2012 (in which the present work was exhibited), as well as solo exhibitions at the Studio Museum, Harlem in April 2007, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art in September 2008.
Demonstrating both a shrewd critical eye and a delicate sensibility, Taylor’s art betrays a wide range of influences and an enigmatic, evasive manner. Shown in his March 2011 exhibition at the Los Angeles Blum & Poe Gallery, See Alice Jump (2011) depicts the first African-American Olympic Gold medal winner Alice Coachman as she vaults a hurdle against a crisp, cerulean sky. In the same exhibition, the portrait Noah (2011) portrays a young boy – a relative of the artist’s – in a style redolent of Henri Matisse. If comparisons are most commonly made between Taylor and Kerry James Marshall – who are, of course, of a similar age – Taylor’s clear preoccupation with the notion of community aligns him to greater extent with Mark Bradford. In a recent video made for W Magazine and The New York Times, Taylor comments that his “influences vary… of course you reflect, and you get nostalgic, and you go back into your past, to your Dad and Mom”. At one point in this video, Taylor shows us a found advertisement, aimed at African American men, for a barbershop on which Taylor has painted the iconic barber’s pole of red, white and blue. Recalling Bradford’s work on the logos of collective Black identity, this moment evinces Bradford and Taylor's shared awareness of sites – including the barbershop – of solidarity, exchange and wisdom in the Californian African-American community. Such spaces have historically served as points of refuge against externally imposed working-conditions, which are metonymised in the present work by the ignored C&H logo.