New York

Philip Taaffe, Altarpiece (detail), 2018, mixed media on canvas, 102 × 75 5⁄8".

Philip Taaffe, Altarpiece (detail), 2018, mixed media on canvas, 102 × 75 5⁄8".

Philip Taaffe

Philip Taaffe is a human search engine, an old-school “image scavenger” hoovering up an encyclopedic array of abstract, symbolic, and representational material to populate the transcultural painterly pastiches for which he is famous. No Google sourcing or pixelation here: The library and the bookstore conspire with the entire catalogue of analog mark-making and a variety of increasingly quaint or nostalgic printmaking and image-transfer techniques—e.g., decoupage, frottage, mono- and screen-printing—to produce visual fields of varying pictorial and affective intensity. This show, Taaffe’s third solo outing with Luhring Augustine, included a few sparky compositions and a couple of scorchers, but not all of the thirteen works on view, which ranged in size from large to extra large, burned so brightly. Though each demonstrated a high degree of formal experimentation, a laudable hallmark of this artist’s oeuvre—and the best possible excuse for failure—half the works in the show paled somewhat by comparison to the others.

The issue was not that the least lively pieces here lacked vibrancy or incident. It was just that they came off as relatively aseptic and frictionless, as unexceptional, if well-balanced, arrangements of layered sets of like elements. Orphic Landscape II, 2016, for instance, places oddly unappealing, richly hued, hard-edge shapes resembling Matissean offcuts against a ground of brushy, overlapping, pastel-colored curvilinear forms. The elements making up the top layer are evenly dispersed across the picture plane, forming a loose optical mesh through which the atmospheric ground is plainly visible and with which it therefore engages. The interplay of contrast (dark and light, crisp and washy, open and closed) and harmony (chromatic compatibility, structural equilibrium) coheres, yet does not, for me at least, seduce or excite. At the top end of the liveliness scale was the monolithic Altarpiece, 2018, a towering mash-up of messily intricate and profligate accretion. The ground this time is a deeply saturated welter of stains, smudges, and spills—as though the canvas was soaked in liquid pigments, repeatedly rucked and rumpled, then pulled taut and left to dry—roughly segmented into four stacked horizontal bands. Overlaid is a dense snarl of mostly white line work and sharply collaged imagery, respectively delineating and depicting a variety of flora, fruit, and vegetables. The frame is packed (Taaffe is clearly a pictorial kenophobe) in this maniacal paean to the marriage of paint and printed matter; every square foot of the picture’s surface bristles and shimmies with a beautifully awkward energy emanating from the expertly but unfussily orchestrated interaction of perceptual and semiotic registers.

Yet as spellbinding as Altarpiece may have been, it was not the most immediately likable work in the show. That distinction belonged to Interzonal Leaves, 2018. Another outsize canvas bearing segmented grounds of dramatically paint-stained expanses, this one was topped with an orderly grid of large decoupaged leaves, each screen-printed with variegated gradients that the artist made by squeegeeing multiple colors at once so that the inks bled into one another. The foliage’s veins appear as an assortment of imperfectly symmetrical white skeletal lines popping off the surface. This is classic Taaffe—an intensified painterly taxonomy. The typological layout of the leaves, with all their adaptive evolutionary variance, can’t help but fascinate. And the slopping about of paint only adds to the fun. It’s all very appealing, and no wonder: The work does, after all, borrow heavily from an entertainment medium (albeit an early modernist one)—printed scientific illustration—that is now a staple of domestic decor (think John Derian). But Taaffe generally keeps his distance here, professing ambivalence toward the patently decorative aspects of his visual vocabulary, once claiming in an interview with the nonnarrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) that he chooses his material based on “personal association and memory,” aiming “to invest the work with a psychic energy.” He thus asserts that he is less concerned with the “loveliness of pictorial composition than with finding the best means for holding the energy there.” Loveliness reigns supreme in Interzonal Leaves, while Altarpiece buzzes with a more challenging and electric dis/pleasure.