Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Alison Elizabeth Taylor @ James Cohen Gallery

Since seeing Alison Elizabeth Taylor's work on-line several years ago, I've been anxious to see her paintings in person. Thankfully, I had the opportunity in November (2013) during her solo show, Surface Tension, at the James Cohan Gallery in New York.

Taylor has, at a young age, carved out a place for herself in the art world by creating contemporary paintings using a centuries old technique (marquetry) of assembling pieces of wood veneer together, like a puzzle. As a result, her work, by definition, holds a tension between the past and the present as well as between fine art and fine craft. With work like this, so much of the impact relies on the ability of the artist to master the craft, and I know from experience that images on the web can be deceiving, hiding imperfections and sloppy work. However, after seeing these paintings in person, I can happily report that her work is impeccable. Her execution is every bit as good as furniture makers that specialize in this technique.

Taylor's work in this show is particularly interesting in two novel ways. For one, she is now combining tradition painting (with oils) along with veneer. And secondly, she using the veneer to "paint" wood.

I loved all the work in the show, it is all visually interesting on many levels, but my favorite piece, by far, is Silver Fox. With it, she takes what would normally be an interesting contemporary art idea, painting a sheet of plywood, and takes it to another level by using wood to do it. In addition, the concept is simultaneously minimalist and abstract expressionist -- it is "just" a sheet of plywood (both conceptually and in actuality); but it is also chaotic, unpredictable, and visually complex. 
Silver Fox
53" x 51"
Furthermore, as is a theme in a lot of her work, she is taking an object that would normally be over looked as too common to waste one's time examining, and makes it completely fascinating, forcing the viewer to ask why they haven't looked at plywood more closely before. 
Silver Fox (closeup)
Again, with Brooklyn Navy Yard, Taylor is asking the viewer to really look at something they would normally overlook and, by using a desert sky behind it, she makes it particularly dramatic and interesting. I find it fascinating how using wood as her "paint" for this subject really elevates it to another level, well beyond what it would have been if she painted the branch with oils. Perhaps because doing so makes it simultaneously a sculpture and a painting causing mental conflict and confusion. 
Brooklyn Navy Yard
36" x 30" x 3/4"
With Into the Wild, Taylor creates a seductive scene and again makes an interesting tree painting with wood, 
Into the Wild
52 1/2" x 38 1/2"
but what really makes this piece is how she uses the wood grain to form ripples in the water. It is such an important part of the painting, I wonder if it was the inspiration. 
Into the Wild (closeup)
In Kelso, Taylor again focuses on a something that would normally be over looked and creates a fascinating work of art -- a neglected home with layers of paint, wall paper, plaster, and lath falling apart.
50" x 47" 1 1/4"
The title seems cryptic, perhaps it is the name of the last family to live in this house, or the town, or street name, or who knows -- interpretation is left to the viewer but, cleverly, the mystery behind the name helps to make the painting more real.
Kelso (closeup)
Laocoon is my favorite of several tree portraits in the show. With its broken branch and multi-directional limbs, it is the most interesting of the series. 
58" x 76"
I assume title is a reference to a Trojan priest that warned against accepting the Trojan Horse as a gift from the Greeks. Perhaps the twisted and broken branches reminded Taylor of a famous sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons at the Vatican.
Laocoon (closeup)
And finally, with The Optimist's Ennui, Taylor again paints a sheet of plywood, but this time with a hole that give a view of an exterior desert scene, leaving the impression that the plywood is being used as an interior wall of a shack.
The Optimist's Ennui
62" x 46"
With the hole in the wall she is able to create a story that is both dramatic and open for interpretation.
The Optimist's Ennui (closeup)

If you are interested in seeing a complete inventory of this show, more and better images are available on the gallery's website here. I'm stilled thrilled at having a chance to see it. Not only is her work unique, fascinating, and well crafted, I also love that she is continuing to evolve, adding elements, themes, and new techniques to her work. It is wonderful to see paintings that combine so many disparate ideas, styles, and media so as to be a part of history and original at the same time.