On ViewAddison Gallery Of American Art
Alison Elizabeth Taylor: The Sum Of It
February 18 – July 30, 2023
On ViewJames Cohan
May 17 – June 24, 2023
New York City
The Sum of It is Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s career survey of forty-one large combination works and one immersive installation. It fills five rooms, the central exhibition hall, and the entry rotunda of the Addison Gallery of American Art, which features an eponymously titled self-portrait (2017), showing Taylor photographing herself in the mirror above the vanity in a rainbow-tiled bathroom—an appropriate metaphor for her organized vision and preference for both slices of her own life and the American mundane vividly rendered. Everything is in her signature technique: marquetry hybrid paintings employing a variety of applied wood veneers, often with painted areas and collaged photography. By the final gallery, the iridescence of the remarkable most recent images border on a winning vulgarity that combines the aesthetics of ancient Rome with today’s Las Vegas, marrying lewdness, tawdriness, and glitz to a variety of contemporary subjects dealing with our age of screens and self, leavened by a focused appreciation for her borough, neighbors, environs, and family. The end results no less than reimagine historical painting for the present.
The Selma, Alabama-born Taylor grew up in Vegas, studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, engaged in the indie comics scene in LA, and began experimenting with wood veneer while earning an MFA at Columbia University under Jon Kessler, Sean Landers, and other teachers. The American West is a settled theme in her art, though she has been located on the East Coast for a long time. In scenes inspired by her upbringing, Taylor has developed a predilection for pictures within pictures, material hung on depicted walls in her images of interior spaces, exceptional portrait-like faces, and scenes of contemporary life. Some of the early work was drawn from photos melded with memory, lacking exact sources. She calls the process “Frankensteining.” Narrative is very present in all the work but, perhaps as a holdover from thinking in terms of the seriality of comics, the images often feel like single panels from a broader, unrevealed story.
Works from the 2000s are marked by monochromatic tones as Taylor familiarized herself with various woods and refined her technique, hovering between a likeness of reality and the practicality of finding an aesthetic equivalence for the depicted world. The level of visual stimulus provided by the wood grain seems related to modernist debates about brushwork in oil painting and style and bravura flow and mimesis of form. The end results are the marquetry equivalent of the additive imagination at play in Synthetic Cubism. In pictures such as The Breeder (2010), there is a remarkable balance between the tonalities and grains of the material and the way that the cut and formed pieces of veneer create bodies, bottles, metals, woods, detail, and space, without evident drawing. Each painting bears a presumed if ambiguous narrative or setting, but also a thousand intricate decisions that the artist has made with regards to the medium and the variety of woods and the distinctions from section to section, from whorl to knot to grain.
Yet they do not exist only in a vacuum of the artist’s early memories and photographs. The aesthetic of the West in Swimming Pool (2006) and Slab City (2007) reflects the spare, working class, drifter conceptualizations of 1970s films by Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, or Martin Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: lives on the margins. The margin becomes subject in the depopulated 93 × 122-inch Security House (2008–10) from the Brooklyn Museum, a single-level ramshackle house in the desert fitfully viewed through a screen of tree trunks, razor wire, and detritus in a side yard. It is also a treat to see the related Room (2007–08), on loan from Crystal Bridges. Here we are inside an 8 × 10-foot Southwestern cabin interior inspired by the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio (ca. 1478-82) at the Metropolitan. It is a four-sided enterable space that features a stunning variety of trompe l’oeil and perspectivally rendered cabinets, windows with views, chairs, a safe, combat helmet, tool racks, workbench: the Americana sublime magically conveyed in a range of natural woods.
More conceptual works include Folie a Deux (2008), an overhead view of two sets of hands and forearms digging into dark earth through a linoleum floor, and Armstrong Congoleum (2011), a Carl Andre-like section of illusionistically patterned floor covering made of wood veneer on aluminum displayed on the gallery floor and wedged into the corner of the room, the congoleum closest to the corner deteriorated and revealing the flashing and insulation beneath (the same floor pattern as in the nearby Kitchen ). These relate to works such as Tap Left On (2009-2010, not on display), where Taylor filled a section of two walls and the ceiling with marquetry portraying peeling water-damaged walls revealing wood framing and insulation. Suddenly, the limitations of rendered vertical walls expands potentially to encompass the whole of inhabited space, a concept spectacularly realized in Reclamation (2014-17), a site-specific complete room at Cornell Tech’s Bloomberg Center on Roosevelt Island, not exhibited but featured in the comprehensive catalogue and its solid introductory essay by Addison Director, Allison N. Kemmerer.
Displayed in the central hall are several gorgeous works from the mid-2010s that embraced abstraction in trippy patterned images wherein grained wood veneer mimics wood grain. In the glistening Silver Fox (2013) and crisscrossed South 7th (2014), the interplay of veneers that mimetically come to stand for swirls and slashes and pulsating knots in the faux bois result in all-over compositions of daring visual originality. Simultaneously, in the titanic Laocoön (2013), Taylor began to introduce paint to her surfaces, in a series about plane trees in her Brooklyn environs. The marquetry branches and trunks are etched against lurid skies, like the vision of Scarlett O’Hara (with her similar sense of knotty persistence) and the grand trees of Tara in the last shot of Gone With the Wind. But Taylor’s urban milieu is far from the mythologized plantations of Georgia, and closer to the gnarled arboreal tenacity of Zoe Leonard’s series of black and white “Tree + Fence” photographs in NYC in the late 1990s.
Recent work is interspersed throughout the show as in the astonishing Still Life with Breast Pump II (2021), a subject that blends seventeenth-century vanitas images with the tools of both artistry and motherhood. The final gallery includes a dozen works from the past eight years that show Taylor’s range of subject and embrace of iridescent painting combined with areas of pasted pigment prints from photographs, and textured segments made with mica or sawdust. Desert landscapes hang side by side with genre scenes of poolside leisure, Vegas gamblers, and showgirls. There is a fascination with side-by-side glitz and grime, cell phones, bottles, feathers, geodes, human hair, and mind-bendingly rendered translucent materials. Today, in the absence of credible history painting in oils in the Academy or the galleries, Taylor has, remarkably, taken on the mantle of conveying the lived life, on a large scale, in all its seam-revealing glory, making it convincing, true, and deeply felt via her marquetry wizardry. Contemporary painters who have similarly and imaginatively taken on the present with earnestness, political bent, and observational aesthetics include Keith Mayerson, Eric Fischl, Kent Monkman, Nicole Eisenman, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, among others. But Taylor’s is the most radical addition to the history painting tradition since Rauschenberg’s combines. The sole quibble I have about the otherwise engrossing display is a lack of an attempt to explain the artist’s range of materials and method. This would not have been in the service of demystifying the marquetry but would have deepened the appreciation of the artistry.
The present show at James Cohan is a kind of coda for The Sum of It. Titled These Days, it is hard to keep out of my head Jackson Browne’s electric guitar fingerpicking and Nico’s half-spoken-word plaintive German-inflected monotone on that eponymous track from 1967. Browne, who like Taylor grew up in the West, precociously wrote it when he was sixteen: it is a fictive nostalgia. But Taylor has seen more of life, as on display in Andover, and the present show in Tribeca finely conveys, in ever-more complicated bois-work, life in the present. The twelve works in various sizes revel in color, and some employ collaged photographs and sand and thick pieces of intarsia—the full gamut of Taylor’s mature range. The nearly 8 × 11 foot The Hotel’s Pool (2023) presents a slice of Vegas weirdness. Swimwear-clad vacationers and gamblers apply sunscreen to buff bods, relax, booze, and sit auditorium-style at the left before a massive saltwater aquarium that features a menagerie of deftly rendered creatures from sharks to diverse tropical fish. The work recalls Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) at MoMA, with its similar bifurcation of cinemagoers at left before a silver screen spectacle and female attendant at right, introspective, melancholy, alone, like the woman in a ball cap at the gambling table at the far right in Taylor’s image. Diversions, here post-COVID, are not without their complications.
The most striking work at James Cohan is The Residency (2022), a tour de force of Albertian perspective and classical form (even including a headless wooded cast of the Kritios Boy at left serving as both muscular eye candy and mannequin), with telling details perhaps alluding to the senses, such as the table at lower right with a broken pencil, magnifying glass, and idle USB cord. On the left and rear walls are photos of friends or relatives, drawings from the antique, reproductions of Marisols and Caravaggios, and a sketch from a still of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Across the room, continuing the gothic airs, is a view through a doorway to a medieval rusticated portal. The sky out the window on the angled garret-like ceiling at upper right is as gloriously iridescent as the interior is a kind of return to Taylor’s earlier monochromatic meditations. Sometimes cloistering up in the studio with one’s inspirations is the only tonic.
In “These Days” Nico dourly sings, “I’d stopped my dreaming/I won’t do too much scheming these days”; Browne scrapped these lines when he recorded his own version in 1973. Happily, for us, Taylor’s latest observations of life, tinged as they are with time’s passage, lean more into Browne’s reflective hopefulness. There is a buoyancy here, a recognition of American life in all its vapidity, voraciousness, and treasured vitality.