Henry Taylor’s She might have loved those summer days but later she cried out! (2016) is a compelling, wistful evocation of sunlit youth. Facing the viewer, two children stand knee-deep in a lake. The painting is almost two metres high, and the figures larger than life. While their features are sparsely sketched, they radiate personality through their stances. We can read in both a shy pause, a certain caution in posing for the camera; perhaps a sulk in the slumped shoulders of the smaller child to the left. The water is glinting caramel, giving way to a broad, cool band of greenery in the background. Another figure sits further back in the lake. With swift, fluid strokes that mirror the sunny immediacy of his scene, Taylor has conjured a captivating rhythm of form and colour. Amid the gold and green of lake and foliage, the children echo one another: the smaller child’s cyan swimming costume is answered by a bright yellow for the taller, darker child to the right. Haloed by flashes of white outline, their bodies appear almost collaged in. Their shadows, running off to the left, blend into one line. As Zadie Smith has written, to discuss Taylor’s work in conceptual terms ‘is to pass over the difference between thinking with language and thinking with images, when Taylor’s own approach to a canvas suggests an artist who thinks primarily in colours, shapes and lines – who has a spatial, tonal genius’ (Z. Smith, ‘Promiscuous painting: Henry Taylor all over the damn place’, in Henry Taylor, New York 2018, p. 7). The painting – derived from a photograph, perhaps a snapshot from Taylor’s own Californian childhood – has a dreamlike, nostalgic glow, and powerfully evokes the shimmering heat and light of a West Coast summer. If it holds a specific story (as the intriguing title seems to hint), Taylor renders it a universal image. It is a picture of humanity, alive with the bold, lucid warmth for which he is renowned.
For Taylor, no subject is off-limits, and his works draw energy from his diverse surroundings in downtown Los Angeles. ‘I think I just hunt and gather’, he has said. ‘I feel sort of voracious’ (H. Taylor quoted in H. Walker, ‘Artist Henry Taylor takes Europe’, Cultured, 12 June 2017). He paints friends, family and passers-by – as well as pictures inspired by newspaper articles and stories – with a keen eye for character and symbolism. Behind his often local and urban focus, Taylor’s tight compositions, lyrical use of colour and smart deployments of the human form reveal a deep art-historical awareness, stirring up references from Manet to Matisse, Beckmann to Basquiat. His bright and balanced attention to all walks of life is partly informed by his time as a journalist, and by the decade he spent working, while also studying at CalArts, as a psychiatric assistant at the Camarillo State Hospital. Here he began to draw and paint his patients, the boundaries between art and daily life dissolving. ‘I learned not to dismiss anybody,’ he has said of this time. ‘It just made me a little more patient, a little more empathetic. It taught me to embrace a lot of things. A lot of people will avoid a person who doesn’t appear normal, but I’m not like that’ (H. Taylor, quoted in K. Rosenberg, ‘Henry Taylor on His Profoundly Empathetic Early Portraits of Psychiatric Patients,’ Artspace.com, 2 April 2016). Refracted through the hazy mirage of memory, She might have loved those summer days but later she cried out! declares Taylor’s empathy loud and clear, its gentle humour and golden colour singing at perfect pitch.