Los Angeles

Henry Taylor, That Was Then, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 95 x 75".

Henry Taylor, That Was Then, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 95 x 75".

Henry Taylor

Henry Taylor, That Was Then, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 95 x 75".

History, as we know, repeats itself—a truism Henry Taylor evinces with mordant effect for his recent exhibition at Blum & Poe. Incorporating the grand loose paintings and rough-hewn assemblages for which he has become known, Taylor revisited familiar narratives surrounding the African American social and cultural experience. Installed, the work spread across three rooms, accessed through as many frostedglass- paned institutional doors (specially installed for this show), labeled variously PRINCIPAL, PROBATION, and DETENTION.

Passing through the first door (PRINCIPAL), the viewer was confronted with five large canvases inspired by WPA photographs of Depression-era black farm workers. Taylor’s handling of the works is consistent with his signature aesthetic, wherein the energy of direct, immediate mark-making is privileged over the finesse of a careful line. In Everyone’s Momma, 2013, Taylor’s maternal heroine, accompanied by a horse, coheres from a meeting of quick acrylic strokes, thick impastos, and paint drippings to appear in the foreground below crude renderings of two churches. Likewise, That Was Then, 2013, succinctly articulates its figure with a minimum of brushstrokes. And yet, despite the confident form of this figure—an older black man, dressed in a blazer and khakis—he stands hemmed in by the racially loaded appellation boy, thrice boldly painted (above his head and also flanking either side) in heavy, rough black script against a soft blue sky. Hanging on the wall, this work and four others were further dramatized by the halffoot layer of furrowed soil that, resembling freshly tilled farmland, covered all but a narrow perimeter of the gallery’s floor. At the center of the plot, Taylor positioned a long dining table dressed with a white tablecloth and eight chairs, hanging a crystal chandelier overhead. Though the dominant narratives here—master and slave, haves and have-nots, exploiters and exploited—could have trapped viewers in well-trodden territory, the unexpected foregrounding of installation in this show gave the viewer pause, encouraging him or her to linger on Taylor’s content, which drove home an awareness that such power dyads persist, however tacitly, throughout today’s still predominantly white European art world.

As the viewer passed into the next room through an ominous-looking metal door labeled PROBATION, the visual archetypes of the slave-owning South gave way to those of the civil-rights era. Among the four large paintings here, Not Alone, 2013, depicts three men—one with a Sammy Davis Jr.–style coiffure, another with a newsboy cap and brown turtleneck—playing dominos; behind them are the ethnographic accoutrements indicative of the period’s budding Afrocentrism. At times his work is reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence; the minimal attention Taylor pays to the men’s physiognomic features finds a corollary in the duo of African sculptures keeping a watchful eye in the background. Meanwhile, the installation Can I Play, 2013, placed at the center of the room, modeled the chained tetherball poles of schoolyard recreation. Here, however, Taylor’s interpretation, which substituted a black-spray-painted plastic jug and a heavy tire for the rubber ball and steel base common to suburban playgrounds, spoke both of deprivation and improvisation.

It was clever ordering on Taylor’s part that, after making it through PROBATION, the viewer ended up in a room marked DETENTION and confronted a constellation of issues and images that are decidedly present-day. With the painting Sweet, 2012, a pack of children—some flashing smiles, others scowls—wear shirts emblazoned with BEBE (the brand name) and LOS ANGELES, a nod to the town the artist has long called home. At the center of the room, Taylor’s installation From Sugar to Shit, 2013—two poles lashed together, grounded in a base of white sugar and capped by discarded toilet-paper rolls—profiled, with the economy of the painting’s brushwork, the burden that weighs heavy today.

Taylor’s exhibition doesn’t just reiterate history: It asks viewers to rethink for themselves the aftereffects of certain critical phases of our troubled past. Profoundly, then, the historically grounded works Taylor presented will no doubt stay with those who view them well into the future.

Joseph Akel