Henry Taylor, Installation view, 2013. Courtesy of Blum & Poe.
Although the show featured three large galleries of work, for me, the central heart of the show laid in the first gallery amidst the tilled rows of soil. As viewers walked into the gallery through the recreated school principal door, they were confronted with the familiar smell of dirt and multiple juxtapositions and incongruencies – all of which were moving, bold, and beautiful. - Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Henry Taylor, Installation view of “principal” door entryway, 2013. Courtesy of Blum & Poe.
Lying before you on the gallery floor, was rows of soil, emulating a recently plowed field. Atop the dirt, which even included occasional sprouted sapling leaves, sat a lavish wooden dining table with an opulent crystal chandelier hanging overhead. Surrounding this central installation were larger than life painted portraits of black American farm workers whom Taylor painted from WPA-era photographs.
Henry Taylor, Installation view of dining table and Everyone’s Momma in background, 2013. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.
Bringing the lavish and over-the-top table setting onto the dirt, and surrounding the installation with iconic images of the laborers who made such lavishness a possibility for the invisible diners and landowners, Taylor flipped the script. With one fell swoop, he makes visible what is often invisible.
Yinka Shonibare | Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without their Heads, 1998, wax-print cotton costumes on mannequins, dog mannequin, painted metal bench, rifle, 165 x 635 x 254 cm with plinth, National Gallery of Canada.
Thomas Gainsborough | Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1750, oil on canvas, 69 x 119 cm, National Gallery, London.
What Taylor did in this one room is congruous to Yinka Shonibare’sMr. and Mrs. Andrews without their Heads. In this seminal work, Shonibare took Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Gainsborough (a seemingly harmless portrait upon first sight, yet one that is wrought with underpinnings of what it meant to be a rich landowner, landed gentry, and possible beneficiaries of the slave trade in Great Britain during 1750) and made the painting three-dimensional. He also removed their heads and replaced their clothing with “African” wax-print cloth that has a complex colonial history all its own. In doing so, Shonibare begs questions about the original painting that were not often asked, such as: where did the Gainsborough’s money come from? Who worked the fields that are included as part of their portraiture? What is the portrait really about?
Henry Taylor | That Was Then, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 95 x 75 x 3 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Blum & Poe.
At Blum & Poe, Taylor does something similar, but takes it to another level, not just by exposing the workers who afforded these wealthy landowners their lavish meals and opulent dining pleasures, but he monumentalized these laborers and he removed the wealthy owners from the picture. In doing so, he goes beyond making visible what is often invisible (the farm laborers), by also making invisible the wealthy patrons who would traditionally be the only party visible in such traditional portraiture. And on top of all of this, he monumentalizes the farm workers in a way that exalts and celebrates them.
Henry Taylor | Everyone’s Momma, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 126 x 75 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Blum & Poe.
Henry Taylor | Everyone’s Momma – installation view DETAIL. Courtesy of Blum & Poe.
In addition to this conceptual reworking of history and art history’s canon, Taylor’s paintings themselves are breathtaking. Towering above me as I surveyed the room, the paintings humbled and awed me with details in such works as “Everyone’s Momma” and “That Was Then.” His subjects’ faces are often blurred with smeared rubs of paint that felt at once sensitive, brilliant, imprecise, and really personal.
Henry Taylor | Mary had a little…(that ain’t no lamb) – DETAIL, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 96 1/2 x 71 3/4 x 2 1/2 inches, Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.
Amidst a sea of often-unchallenging artists, Taylor’s portraits and installations were a welcome challenge. And one that I will happily continue to follow.
Henry Taylor (born in Oxnard, California, 1958) received his bachelor of arts from California Institute of the Arts and has had solo exhibitions at MOMA PS1, Santa Monica Museum of Art, and Studio Museum in Harlem.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.
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