Though the materials-based approach that characterizes Henry Taylor’s current exhibition “Nothing Change, Nothing Strange” (on view through October 22, 2023) might seem unlikely for an artist best known for his figurative paintings, one need only consider how line work becomes dimensional in his searing portraits and “painted objects” to understand this new body of work—the culmination of an 18-month residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in collaboration with the Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR) program in northeast Philadelphia, where he and the FWM Studio team sourced various kinds of trash, including tarps, aluminum, wood, and textiles. Taylor uses these items to sharply and wittily examine the private, ordinary, historical, and contemporary conditions of Black American life, combining formalism with materiality to archive and conjoin moments personal and political.
His characteristically loose brushwork is apparent in an introductory diptych pinned to the wall opposite the entrance to the main gallery. Here, curvy lines of paint create an ocean of wave-like blue forms, while a hand hovering on what appears to be a horizon line reaches for the disembodied head of a Black man. In front of this image stands an over-size loom made from two-by-fours, perhaps the work most unrecognizable as Taylor’s. Inside the frame, twisted warp threads hang heavily like ropes; cascading freely over the top, they stretch outward, converging to a taut point, weighted down by burlap sacks, before continuing in a single line that binds itself to a towering assemblage loaded on a wooden pallet.
By stacking, binding, and juxtaposing an assortment of formal elements to configure new images and meanings out of the familiar, Taylor coalesces the seemingly disparate objects making up this installation/exhibition into an itinerary of interrelated allusions. Some of his references become clear on the other side of the exhibition’s ante-chamber, where the elevator bank is painted a dark black, with two paint rollers (one pink, one orange) transformed into a lighted wall sconce. A ramp swathed in a Moroccan rug leads to a painted doorway, with a plane of bright blue descending into gray and then bright orange. The feeling of a ship’s hull—a space of containment and escape—is visceral, evoking the experience of the Middle Passage.
Themes of oppression and racially motivated violence permeate many of Taylor’s paintings, and here, he explores the relationship of racism to abstraction and symbolism. At the threshold of the rear entryway, an almost floor-to-ceiling textile is framed at the top and bottom by two clouds of blonde and Black synthetic hair. In the center, the British landmass is depicted in blue and red (Scotland and England, respectively), while the Irish Republic appears as blurry white. Two bold arrows, one pointing up to the light hair and the other pointing down to the dark, create an uneasy binary between the two. A page of text reads “TARZAN wo TARTAN” in black script.
This enigmatic work hints at the motif that subtly coheres each element in the installation—the tartan. Entering the main gallery, traces of the plaid fabric begin to emerge from the cluster of assemblages—it’s in the vibrant electric lights, the plastic tapestries, and the wrappings of rectangular, shoe-box-size bricks placed at the bases of several works. A woven wool cloth, with its first appearance in Scotland dating back thousands of years, tartan has a violent, twisty history and racist associations. In “Nothing Change, Nothing Strange,” it becomes a means for Taylor to materialize and meditate on affiliations between people, what connects and separates them, and the stories they tell themselves to categorize those unlike them.
The central assemblage—an accumulation of found materials shaped into something like a boat—heightens the poetic abstraction. Wood-framed Astroturf defines the bow and stern, a sheet of Plexiglas mounted to wood alludes to a porthole; and a ceiling-grazing piece of lumber serves as a mast. Two green tarps billow like sails, and ropes of black plastic act as barriers to the hull. A bale of pressed gray and black material resides at the center, and three shroud-like forms cloaked in black plastic stand at the rear. Connections between materials and forms percolate as their juxtapositions conjure interpretations. None of the discrete assemblages in the show have titles, a fact that presses you to carefully consider descriptions based on their identifiable components. A mental wordplay begins as you trace the material and epistemological origins of each formal and material element. Slowly, the tartan becomes Tarzan, as Taylor reminds us that meanings evolve over time and place, and categories are never fixed.
Henry Taylor’s retrospective “B-Side,” including assemblage sculptures and his painted objects, is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, October 4, 2023–January 2024.