On ViewLuhring Augustine
November 2 – December 21, 2019
In this third solo exhibition at the gallery, Philip Taaffe continues to pursue an elegant and precise aggregate of images and technique. A nature/culture dialectic is expanded as wide, it would seem, as Taaffe’s curiosity demands. Both historically and geographically, sources of color and motif multiply and recombine from painting to painting, inclusive of symbols, decorative elements, design, and plant forms. What is consistent is that the paintings, as paintings, are anchored through composition and gesture to arrive somewhere here between Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. The endlessly inventive surface—always abutting the material support—remains frontal and carpeted in pulsating and shifting patterns. Visual depth is continuously variegated with the use of flat silhouetted shapes in a varying succession of planes, that are overlapping and rhythmical.
Taaffe brings a vivid contemporaneity to the references and images he employs through his approach, which ranges between gestural painting, silk-screening, photographic transfer and stenciling. Motifs appear from many sources including natural history volumes, museums, and travel. When these motifs are reassembled in new configurations, new life, both conceptual and visual, emerges—cross currents through and between cultures and traditions produce provocative constellations. Take the first painting encountered at the gallery, Orphic Landscape II (2016). Like the scattered paper pieces of one of Jean Arp’s early 1930s experiments with chance—torn paper dropped on a sheet of paper as composition—the shapes in this painting have found their place and orientation intuitively, though, the arrangement is likely finely tuned and considered. Perhaps the title itself indicates a musical scene as Orpheus was said to be able to make animals in the landscape dance before him. Representations of Orpheus in Roman mosaics, where he is surrounded by trees and animals, also recall Taaffe’s painting. I also think of John Cage’s compositions, such as those that pay attention to silence, the sounds of objects in the concert hall, and of course his use of chance during the writing process, influenced by Eastern philosophies.
As is the case with the other paintings in this exhibition, Orphic Landscape II contains areas of gestural painting within stenciled shapes, though in other paintings it is the ground onto which shapes are placed. This has long been typical of Taaffe’s work, the ground sometimes brushed or at other times scraped, stained or applied with a mop. Interzonal Leaves (2018) has such a painterly ground, across which images of various leaves, themselves radiant with gradated color float facing forward, partially merging with, or graphically distinct from the ground. As Taaffe himself said in a Bomb interview from 1991, and it is just as apposite today, “I like syncretist situations, the kind of situations where incursions from many different geographical sources have a layering effect of cultural and historical density….decoration is usually derived from a local, natural situation; it can epitomize the lush quality of palms or lotus flowers or jungle overgrowth.” The paintings represent imaginary situations, where all manner of recombining is possible. Each painting has a distinct and different character from the next, even where the paintings are part of a pair, such as Portal (Elegidia) (2019) or Portal (poematia) (2019), two dark and luminous paintings that share some elements of repeated, thin crescent shapes superimposed amongst juxtaposed botanical forms.
Taaffe manages to equate, rather than elevate, craft and ornament with high culture, bringing together environmental aspects of natural and built structures into an amalgam. The works are rich composites manifesting abstractions and modernist accomplishments whilst enriching formal acuity with protean conceptual associations. In this Taaffe is unique, as he foregrounds such connections and makes so much more of them than reference—he opens a vital exchange.