Robust creative energy combined with an unusual painting technique dominates Rodney Taylor’s survey show in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts gallery. Taylor’s tendency to adopt figurative imagery on occasion serves to illuminate his pure abstractions and gives rise to the show’s title, “Impure Abstraction.”
Taylor paints with flashe (a vinyl-based matte-finish paint), clay, water and sometimes tempera. In many works, he applies it with his fingers, which generates crackled, fragile-looking strokes. They look vulnerable, as if they might fall off at any moment.
In many paintings, the medium calls to mind the look of decaying interior walls. In some works, the welter of strokes suggests forms in nature, like clusters of strips of tree bark. Precursors to this aesthetic from the 1940s and ’50s are photographs of peeling paint by Aaron Siskind and the ripped poster art of Jacques Villeglé. In Taylor’s hands, the medium becomes a tool for exposing many aspects of art and life.
Taylor works in series. He explores a formal or thematic idea through multiple variations, which are untitled and numbered. At the show’s entrance, paintings on paper from the “White with Color” series display nuanced color and appear to be examples of latter-day abstract expressionism. Closer scrutiny reveals a pink ibis in one painting, hinting at the stylistic mix to come.
A series of tight, rectilinear black and white paintings signal Taylor’s strong formalist bent, although modified by his seemingly irreverent tactic that allows traces of colored under layers to peek through in places where the surface has chipped off. Taylor also expresses this geometric proclivity in a beautiful painting titled “House,” where multicolored vertical and horizontal strokes hover against black. A few key diagonals lead the eye to a small window shape in the upper center.
Another painting from the “Black and White” series, a black square with a few narrow irregular white stripes near the bottom edge, could be characterized as impure minimalism.
Loosely rendered comic-book action figures enliven a painting from the “Hero” series. The same impulse then morphs into organic shapes that could be interpreted as heads or bodies. But the lack of a clear reference doesn’t diminish the aesthetic pleasure. In the “Window” series, for instance, four black windowpanes form a strong focus in one work, but in another the “window” becomes a compositional device to arrange four wild gestural abstractions. The exception is the “Tree” series, where trees remain iconic, whether growing out of the top of a white dome (the U.S. Capitol?) or standing starkly white and lifeless in a stormy landscape.
The “Moments” series forms an interlude in the show. These 30 works that could be pages from a sketchbook mingle figural fragments, compositional notes and touches of humor. In one of them a slender bluebird perches on top of a head rendered in inkblots and appears to be plucking its hair.
The earliest work in the show (1993), from the “Middle Passage” series, includes a multitude of small bodies lined up as if in the hold of a slave ship. This perhaps provides an answer to the question of what led Taylor to pursue such an idiosyncratic medium, a technique that seems to run counter to the precision (and artistic tradition) of his geometric abstractions. (As an African-American, he can’t fully buy into the modernist abstract tradition that was largely invented by white Europeans?)
Taylor’s “Impure Abstraction” conveys a refreshing sense of creative freedom, displaying the discoveries of an artist unfettered by the strictures of stylistic consistency or the expectations of painting craft traditions.
What: “Rodney Taylor: Impure Abstraction”
When: Through May 2