‘When I’m painting from life the colours seem more alive and apparent, because it’s real – I mean, whatever real is … A human being is never in black and white, even if I’m colourblind’
‘The opposite of an abstractionist, Mr. Taylor is a Social Realist in the best sense of that oft-maligned term. He paints roughly the rough world of his own experience, but he does so with a rare spirit of generosity and love’
In Walking with Vito (2008), Henry Taylor paints a vivid evocation of downtown Los Angeles. Two men walk a mastiff across a sunbaked sidewalk, the Southern California heat clear in the saturated colours and the men’s shorts and vests – one man wears his vest over his shoulder, and his companion drinks from a red bottle. Both stare directly out of the canvas. Behind them is a glimpsed police car, a monumental ‘NO PARKING’ sign in metallic gold and a strip of blue sky; in the midground is a black hairdressers, with a sign advertising wigs of human hair for sale. These textual elements recall the décollaged ‘social abstraction’ of Taylor’s fellow L.A. artist Mark Bradford, who uses found media – paper from peeling billboards, newsprint, hairdressing endpapers from the perming process – to create a multilayered fusion of his material environment with societal commentary. Taylor, however, tells his stories in the language of paint. The scene is brought to life in a thick, vigorous impasto that foregrounds the role of the medium, with drips and splashes testifying to energetic technique; the green frontage of the salon is echoed in a painterly glow on Vito’s foreleg. ‘When I’m painting from life the colours seem more alive and apparent,’ Taylor has said, ‘because it’s real – I mean, whatever real is … A human being is never in black and white, even if I’m colourblind. Right now I’m looking out my window and I see shades of green, and then something may be reflecting onto that green from somebody’s apartment. So you get blue in there. (in a high-pitched voice) “Why you got blue in the muthafucka?” I say, “Shit man, there was a blue light over there. But you just don’t see the blue light”’ (H. Taylor, quoted in D. Lawson, ‘Deana Lawson and Henry Taylor,’ BOMB, no. 133, Autumn 2015, p. 133). Richly atmospheric, intensely human and carefully controlled, Walking with Vito is the work of one of contemporary figurative painting’s most eloquent brushes.
California-born Taylor paints friends, family and passers-by with a keen eye for detail and symbolism, his expressive work deceptively naïve: beyond a local and often urban focus, Taylor’s tight compositions, lyrical use of colour and smart incorporations of text reveal a deep awareness of art history, stirring up references from Goya to Matisse, German Expressionism to Jean-Michel Basquiat. His bright and balanced attention to all walks of life is partly informed by the decade he spent working, while also studying at CalArts, as a psychiatric assistant at the Camarillo State Hospital for the mentally ill. 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, April 2, 2016).
Taylor’s poised, sensitive humanity has a further autobiographical tenor. As the artist explains, his paintings drink in the world with the sense that every day is to be celebrated. ‘My parents were from Texas. My father’s father was shot and killed when my dad was nine years old. At that age, he had to go with my grandmother to help get the body. My father was a real tough guy, but when he drank, he would tell the story. He would call me in the middle of the night, and say, “They shot my dad; they shot my dad. First they shot his arm off and then they tried to kill him again.” I lived with my father for a year, when we moved from Oxnard to Oakland. In my thesis show at California Institute of the Arts, I wrote some of the things my dad would say to me on the walls. Things you remember, like, “Meet me. It might be your last time.” I think my work is all about these stories – stories I heard repetitively growing up’ (H. Taylor, quoted in J. Samet, ‘Beer with a Painter, LA Edition: Henry Taylor,’ Hyperallergic, 27 June 2015, p. 3). With its striking clarity of vision and uninhibited self-awareness, Walking with Vito exemplifies Taylor’s approach to painting and to life: a normal day, a walk through the heat of the streets, is worth our undivided attention. Taylor seizes the moment through the power of paint, precious and beautiful for all to see.