Alison Elizabeth Taylor: Future Promise
New YorkJames Cohan Gallery
September 10 – October 23, 2021
Alison Elizabeth Taylor is a painter of contemporary American experience. She tells stories of the people and landscapes of the American Southwest and Brooklyn, New York—places where she grew up and currently lives, respectively—primarily through cutting, manipulating, and fitting together thousands of little pieces of wood veneer in a multitude of colors and grains. Why a 21st-century painter would adopt as the foundation of her practice wood-inlay marquetry—a luxurious decorative art form popularized in the Renaissance that memorialized the wealthy and powerful and was revived in the mid-20th century as a pictorial hobby—has been a topic of ongoing discussion since her first show 20 years ago. What is certain is that she has reinvigorated the age-old technique by marrying it to subject matter based on her own direct observations and, in the process, harnessed the grain and tone of veneer to define space, surface, line, color, and form—all while paying homage to her world and opening new perspectives on painting itself.
Taylor’s subject material in Future Promise, at James Cohan Gallery, has taken a turn toward the personal in paintings that reflect the impact of quarantine on her as an artist, mother, and person. The landscape of her Brooklyn neighborhood in Statuary Inc. (2021) and Anthony Cuts under the Wburg Bridge, Sunset (2021), for example; scenes of interiors or intimacy in On Thinking Thoughts are Feelings (2020) and Kiss (2021); and reflections on community in Night at the PS (2020) are departures from earlier series dominated by social critiques of the changing Southwest landscape depicting suburban sprawl, dystopian aspects of the housing crisis, the obsession with guns, sex, and video games—and the underlying violence of contemporary American life in general. Taylor’s last show at Cohan Gallery delved into the excesses of the casinos and bars of her hometown of Las Vegas with a corresponding extravagance of execution in paintings in which she introduced color and began to mingle paint and photographs with the wood veneer. The more temperate subject matter of the recent work, meanwhile, stands in contrast with Taylor’s now barely restrained mash-up of wood veneer marquetry with painted wood, photographic prints, and painted passages on panel in what she calls “marquetry hybrids.” The paintings astonish with their vibrant colors and meticulous detail, even as they obfuscate the viewer’s sense of pictorial space and efforts to distinguish between materials and processes.
As Taylor surveyed her deserted East Williamsburg neighborhood during the 2020 lockdown, she recalled Martin Wong’s iconic ’80s paintings of brick tenement buildings and lockdown gates on the Lower East Side. Her portrayals in Statuary Inc. of bricks, graffiti, signage, nails, wood-boarded windows, the tape holding up a want ad, and religious statuary seen through a closed, glass door have remarkable veracity without being photorealistic. A stunning array of surface colors, textures, materials, and treatments takes over Kiss, a double portrait of a masked young man and woman embracing and kissing on a COVID date under the protective arch of bare, but embellished, tree boughs. Taylor began Night at the PS just before the shutdown, but resumed work on it while overseeing her children on Zoom classes in an uninhabited warehouse on a desolate street of unoccupied buildings. A community portrait of adults and children coming together in support of one another at a school play, the painting became an ode to gratitude for all that they missed and wanted to go back to.
Rockshop (2020) returns to the Southwest, but embodies Taylor’s reliance on natural materials as a fundamental aesthetic strategy. Her rendering of colorful rock geodes on a wood veneer display case outfitted with a transparent shelf through which one marvels at the wood grain patterns—slightly altered in color to account for looking through plastic—is a tour de force of painting. These souvenirs of nature are placed against a large picture window, through which is seen a majestic view of “real” nature that Taylor wryly paints flatly like a postcard. The monumentality and placement in the gallery of Meet You There (2021) posits nature as a spiritual refuge, if tinged with unease. Here, nature is a larger-than-life entity of eternal growth and decay, replete with known and unknown dangers. Returning to a limited palette in which color, pattern, and depth derive simply from the diversity of woods (except for the painted pinks of the sunset), Taylor affirms her commitment to marquetry, which seems increasingly prescient and resonant in the context of our global ecological crisis. Building on her painting repertoire and the relationship between the content of her paintings and their realization, Taylor’s Future Promise rewards visually as it delves more deeply into questions of perception and meaning in painting and our world.