Friday, April 20, 2012

"March Forth" by Henry Taylor at UNTITLED

Henry Taylor, a Los Angeles-based African American artist lauded for his colorful acrylic portraits, has a gift of capturing the nuanced moods of his sitters despite using a bare, non-naturalistic painting style. March Forth, his new solo exhibition, is a foray from these figurative paintings into drawing, sculpture, and installation. Inspired by Taylor’s recent trip to Ethiopia, the gallery has been transformed into a low-lit abyss complete with a dirt floor, a taxidermied hyena, and a reconstructed hut of found objects. Taylor’s search for self-expression with new media regrettably feels like a stereotypical African rendering.

The major portrait included in the show is Taylor’s looping home video, presumably created during his trip, projected on the wall above the gallery’s entryway.  His muffled speech into the camera draws our focus to the image of himself as sitter. The sun gleaming behind his left shoulder showers rays across his unclothed body, which fluctuates between discernible and silhouetted due to his enthusiastic movements. Flanking the seating area below the video are walls covered sparingly with partly erased outlined figures and ambiguous text, including a series of letters that metamorphose from the shape of a “U” to that of a “Y” accompanied by the parenthetical “This is not a Y,” to an upside down pitchfork, the eyes of an outlined figure, and finally the shape of a hook. The fact that these transformative images neighbor his introductory self-portrayal sets the stage for the show as Taylor’s efforts to push his art in a new direction.

One of the large-scale works in March Forth is a black hanging sculpture that spans the gallery’s rear wall.  The twelve-foot long untitled piece consists of plastic bottles, detergent containers, and gas canisters nailed to a plywood support spray-painted black. Taylor undoubtedly recognizes their resemblance to traditional African masks, and he accumulates the containers into a collage of varying shapes so that faces of numerous dimensions pop out. This concept is hardly new, conjuring the painted jerrican masks by contemporary African artist Romuald Hazoume. Yet the two artists differ in their treatment of the containers; Hazoume employs uniformity in his assemblage while Taylor abolishes it. The latter’s approach is spontaneous, subtly applying order to a haphazard collection of bottles that might have once been scattered across his studio floor.

Bidon Armé by Romuald Hazoumé, 2004
The centerpiece of the show is Taylor’s reconstructed Ethiopian hut taking up the central space of the gallery. Made up of found and collected objects, the hut is a hodgepodge of brooms and other cleaning tools, a rolled up rug, wooden wheels, ladders, beer bottles and walking sticks for the blind. The openness of the structure welcomes the viewer in for a turn around its interior, and inside are piles of dirt that appear placed equidistantly apart. At its back sits a television playing the video interview of an Ethiopian boy, a Denny’s box sitting atop as if signifying a westernized influence. The hut appears to be an attempt at calming or systematizing a chaotic assortment, but falls short of intelligibly communicating any greater purpose. The materials do not seem to be placed schematically aside from the goal of allowing the hut to securely stand. Taylor has been known to use found objects like cigarette packs and cereal boxes as surfaces for his paintings, but the theme in this context—dirty and lacking a framework for deeper contemplation—reads as a clichéd characterization of Africa.

In March Forth, Henry Taylor’s exploration into sculpture and installation is the focus of the show, but too many stereotypical elements—the dirt, the hyena, the hut—give the show a banality and drown out the profundity behind these new creations. For a figurative painter with such a knack for capturing the idiosyncrasies of his subjects and the larger cultural implications they represent, these qualities are not portrayed through this show.


  1. I think that this is a very strong review of very complex work. This show was so full of stuff it was hard to find a moment to think. You do a nice job of recreating this feeling with words.

    I would suggest not mentioning his previous work twice in the paper. While I think it is strong when you make comparisons between the new work and some well known examples, it is mostly a distraction from what the show provided. Instead, you might want to begin the paper with a description of the show, as you did in P2. You mix in some reference to his older work in the middle of the review and I think that is enough.
    All in all, great job.

  2. I agree with Patrick and I think this review is really well written.
    I think you recreate the atmosphere of the show wery well. You make some strong points and I enjoyed your personal reflections, in particular the way you compare the container collage work with Romuald Hazoume’s original work. Since the entire exhibition shows the new approach of the artist to the African culture, I think it is important to see the correlation with his previous paintings. The last few sentences have a clear message. I didn’t know his paintings but the way you underline his new ‘artistic transformation’ make me reflect on the importance of this curatorial choice.

  3. After seeing this show I honestly didn't know what the take away was. I'm still not sure that I fully do and, to some extent, that seems to be part of the point. Your incisive review however, clarifies a lot of that ambiguity I walked away with particularly not knowing anything about the artist and his underlying themes. Reading it put me back in that space with a frame of reference in which I could begin to make some sense of it.
    In theory, I agree with Patrick in that I don't know that the references to his past work necessarily elucidate some of the subtler nuances of "March Forth", at least in your introduction. However, I think the connection becomes much clearer at the conclusion when you talk about how the show falls a bit short in relation to his previous ability to represent something profound without invoking the banal. Nice Job!!

  4. Henry Taylor one of the most important Artists in the present, love him, hell I DO!

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