‘I try to find absolute freedom in painting. I want to be taken over!’ —H. TAYLOR
In this richly expressive nude portrait, Henry Taylor depicts fellow Los Angeles-based artist Terri Philips. With its subject’s upright poise and veiled eyes, Terri Philips (2011) carries a formal echo of Gerhard Richter’s iconic Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966). Where Richter blurs paint to a near-photographic smoothness, however, Taylor revels in his medium’s materiality, working in lively impasto and unafraid of drips, splashes or visible brushstrokes. As is typical of his work, he brings his subject to scintillating life through raw painterly energy and a keen eye for animated composition. Phillips stands in heels and an open overcoat on a dark wooden floor, flanked by two wooden doors labelled ‘B’ and ‘Q’; the left is ajar, leading down a corridor to a distant light source. Framing her is a central section of wall, whose variegated blue and white surface seems to indicate a patchy paintjob on worn plaster but also evokes a luminous, cloud-filled sky, offsetting the delicate pink flush of the model’s skin. She is lent the aura of a holy visitation, her body and face conveyed in perceptive strokes that are at once exuberant and elegant; her eyes are ochre shadows, the shade cast by her coat a vivid deep blue. ‘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’ (H. Taylor, quoted in D. Lawson, ‘Deana Lawson and Henry Taylor,’ BOMB, no. 133, Autumn 2015, p. 133). Displaying Taylor’s acuity at its electric best, Terri Philips brings together painter and sitter in a joyful expression of paint’s multivalent powers of portrayal.
Taylor’s style can appear deceptively naïve. Beyond his local and often urban focus, the California-born artist’s tight pictorial arrangements, 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. The stencilled lettering and patchwork of blues in the present work call to mind works by Jasper Johns such as Diver (1962), with its panelled array of mislabelled colours. Taylor’s ‘B’ is angled to remind us that it has been applied on the flat surface of the picture, not on the door in illusionistic space; the white drips on the floor could be in the room itself, or a result of his vigorous work on the canvas. Even as he rejoices in painting, Taylor deftly takes it apart.
Painting friends, family and passers-by with a sharp sense of detail and symbolism, Taylor’s 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 paintings drink in the world with the sense that all existence is to be celebrated. With its striking clarity of vision and uninhibited self-awareness, Terri Philips exemplifies the artist’s approach to painting and to life: revitalising the classical subject of the nude, Taylor invests the work with the vivid beauty of the everyday.