New York

Alison Elizabeth Taylor

As images, Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s works tell oblique, partial stories of the American Southwest, which they cast as a place where an only ambiguously friendly terrain and local community meet cool young homesteaders who live geodesically, swim and bicycle, and keep peacocks as pets. In Wonder Valley, 2007–2008, a guy in shades and a pickup watches from the other side of a barbed-wire fence as two women chat on the steps of their ecologically fashionable domed home. If there is menace here it is implicit and external, but danger is elsewhere immediate, as when perhaps one of the same women, at perhaps the same house, must give CPR to a man who has fallen, stricken, to the ground. Was it the heat? Others calmly watch. The original designer of the geodesic dome, of course, was Buckminster Fuller, and the title of this work from 2008, Fucminster Buller, suggests a response to the man and his invention, which for all its protective brilliance shelters lives as fragile as any other.

As objects, meanwhile, Taylor’s pictures tell some other story altogether, for they are made in marquetry—i.e., in wood veneer, of various colors and grains, cut, shaped, and fitted together jigsaw-style. This sometimes leads to a slightly, umm, wooden quality—in Hank, 2007, for example, I for one just don’t believe Hank’s bike is going anywhere, despite the use of the wood grain to signal direction and speed. (In the mountains beyond, it connotes not movement but geological strata.) For the most part, though, Taylor’s skill can be assumed. The question is: And so?

A full-length essay on Taylor would have to explore the history and tradition of marquetry, its usual contexts, its medium-specific qualities, the differences between its greater and lesser achievements, and where this artist fits in the above. I can’t get to that just now, but the history does matter—particularly when the writing on Taylor tends to treat her as if the fact that she does marquetry were enough. Marquetry, like tapestry, was once, in Renaissance Europe, a distinguished, aristocratic form of picture making and is now a minority art-historical specialty and a territory for hobbyists. Taylor separates herself from the hobbyists through ambition and from the history through subject matter: Innately precious, marquetry has rarely been used to describe ordinary people, let alone ordinary people in California, and the most remarkable examples I know of are not narrative landscapes but still lifes and trompe l’oeils. So Taylor has a tension going between medium and image—but how deep does it run? “People are drawn to the beauty of the wood,” Taylor has said, “and when they’re looking at the wood, they have to look at the image.” Or else it’s the other way round: The pictures’ intricate construction so attracts as to outweigh their content. And having been reminded of tapestry, I think of the various conceptually informed needleworkers today making art whose meanings seem much more intimately embedded than Taylor’s in the histories and qualities of their materials.

The exception, though, was also, promisingly, the show’s most ambitious work. This was Room, 2007–2008, a walk-in space, walled entirely in inlay, inspired by a famous fifteenth-century Italian marquetry room now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That room is an intellectual’s study, and its furnishings, pictured trompe l’oeil on the walls, are books, musical and scientific instruments, ornately carved benches. Taylor’s room is a desert cabin, equipped with machine tools, animal skulls, a camp bed, a rifle cabinet—the stuff of an outsider existence. In its detailed evocation of a life, Room recalls Ed Kienholz, and being basically an outsize still life it benefits from marquetry’s static quality as Taylor’s more narrative works do not. It is also involving as picture making. When we look at a painting of a room, we know, of course, that the wall, the pictures on the wall, and the view through the windows are all the same thing: paint. But the illusionistic power of paint is ancient and persuasive. Make walls, postcards taped to them, and the views through windows all out of opaque wood veneer, and you may defamiliarize picture making enough to make it new.

David Frankel