Henry Taylor B Side

14.11.2023
Maggie Scaife

Henry Taylor B Side

14.11.2023
Maggie Scaife

Henry Taylor: B Side, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presents an impressive retrospective of work in various mediums, including oil paintings, sculptures, and drawings.

Born in 1958 in suburban Ventura, Los Angeles, the multidisciplinary artist is often found documenting the day-to-day experiences of family members, friends and neighbours to celebrities, politicians, and even strangers with a paintbrush in hand. The retrospective’s title suggests Taylor is allowing spectators an intimate first look at some ‘secondary’ pieces that span his 30-year-long career. With newspaper clippings often acting as a starting point, Taylor’s intimate portraiture is a sensitive reflection on the complexity of the black experience in America. It speaks to disproportionate injustices, including mass incarceration, poverty, and institutional racism within the police force.

His empathetic, truth-seeking nature permeates his works, that are often a delicate look at moments of hardship and struggle of those on the fringes. Taylor’s subjects are a response to his human instinct. Often snapshots taken from memory, this show is a powerful documentation of an improvisational process. His on-the-fly way of working often makes for a quick turnaround; however, results feel intentional and anything but slapdash.

His colour palette is punchy. Never fussy, you can tell he hasn’t painstakingly deliberated over each painting, which fills the work with honesty. Taylor distances himself from ‘head and shoulder’ postures we often associate with portraiture. Instead, he captures people in their natural context going about their daily business. His eye for angles and perspective closely resembles that of contemporary photographers and filmmakers. A tight crop lets the viewer tap into the spectrum of emotions being conveyed, and life-size subjects allow the audience to relate to them on a deeper level.

A keen storyteller, I thought the sketches from his time working as a psychiatric technician at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital had a journalistic quality. Blurring the line between subject and patient, his connection with his sitters revealed a mutual respect.

Taylor nods to his painter predecessors, Alice Neel and Philip Guston, who also used art to mirror society. I particularly liked his use of domestic objects, such as cereal packets, as canvases – which I interpreted as a commentary on the class divide within the arts.

 

Henry Taylor: B Side at the Whitney. Until 28th January 2024.